North Korea’s active attitude toward dialogue is positive, but South Korea must refrain from making hasty moves or raising expectations ahead of talks. It needs to take a measured and prudent approach, mindful of the North’s peace offensive and negotiation tactics.
Seoul must also heed US officials’ concern, though Washington supports the talks and looks forward to seeing good results. The Moon Jae-in administration must keep in close consultation with the US to further talks.
North Korea on Friday accepted the Unification Ministry’s offer to hold talks tomorrow at a pavilion on the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjeom. Its agenda concerns matters to arrange the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea next month and other issues for the improvement of inter-Korean relations. The North’s reply came two days after it restored the telephone line at Panmunjeom on Wednesday.
The North’s moves for talks with the South are welcome and significant, considering the escalated war risk on the Korean Peninsula triggered by its nuclear and missile programs. Dialogue is more needed now than ever before to defuse the hair-trigger tension, and all the more so because the opening of the world’s premier winter sports event is just about a month away.
It is a relief that the communication channel between the two Koreas has been reconnected after a 23-month hiatus and that Pyongyang is active in trying to hold talks with the South. Be that as it may, excessive optimism should be avoided. The more impatient the South gets, the more it will likely lose in negotiations.
When talks enter a stage of dealing with more serious issues such as economic, humanitarian or military matters, the South must be prudent and cautious. It should keep in mind why it is holding talks with the North. Their ultimate objective lies in the denuclearisation of North Korea. In his New Year address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, while offering dialogue with the South, mentioned its ability to mass-produce and deploy nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. It is imperative to remove nukes from the peninsula, whether talks are held or not. This is why South Korea must keep a rock-solid US alliance.
One of the most important reasons to stay on guard against the North is its likely peace offensive aimed at fostering ideological division in the South and cracking its alliance. North Korea will likely demand South Korea move to ease sanctions or make unacceptable demands such as suspension of joint Korea-US military drills in return for a freeze on its nuclear programme.
Considering the North’s erstwhile behaviour pattern where it seeks dialogue to buy time or deflect sanctions then resumes provocations, cavilling at minor things, prudent and cool-headed steps are needed when negotiating with Pyongyang.
Though US President Donald Trump looks forward to good results from inter-Korean talks and reportedly agreed to delay US-Korea military drills until after the games, the South Korean government needs to pay attention to concerns some US officials expressed about the North’s duplicity.
They responded coolly to Pyongyang’s suggestion of talks, concerned about its likely attempt to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. The head of US forces in South Korea warned on Thursday against raising hopes over North Korea’s peace overture.
In this vein, it is worrisome that some figures in the ruling camp are saying things that stretch the meaning of the inter-Korean dialogue, possibly weakening the international front of pressure on the North. Moon Chung-in, President Moon’s special adviser on unification, foreign affairs and national security, said on a radio show Thursday that the delay of US-Korea military exercises until after the PyeongChang Olympics could lead to a substantial scaling down in those exercises. Rash arguments that South Korea should offer something bold in the talks with North Korea will only obstruct efforts to resolve its nuclear programme.
Even if talks are going on, keeping pressure on the regime is essential. Impetuous remarks will give the wrong signals to North Korea as well as the US. The government must not be impatient. It ought to keep a close consultation with the US to send a united message.