North Korea’s abrupt proposal of fresh dialogue with South Korea has all the hallmarks of Pyongyang lobbing its favorite diplomatic curve ball.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s offer, during a New Year’s speech, represents a sudden softening of his tough stance toward the southern neighbor.
In the speech, Kim floated the idea of new North-South talks and suggested he may send a delegation to the Winter Olympics to be held in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
But Kim also made clear his intention to enhance North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and unwillingness to succumb to pressure from the United States.
In South Korea, the administration of President Moon Jae-in immediately welcomed Kim’s offer. High-level talks between the two Koreas are likely to be held soon, possibly next week.
Moving swiftly to back up his message, Kim on Jan. 3 reopened a cross-border direct communication channel with the South for the first time in nearly two years.
The situation in the Korean Peninsula surrounding Pyongyang’s arms programs must be solved through dialogue.
The start of fresh North-South dialogue itself is a development to be welcomed, but with the dose of caution required in responding to any change in North Korea’s attitude.
Kim’s overtures to South Korea come as he maintains a hard-line stance toward the United States. He is clearly trying to drive a wedge into the alliance between Seoul and Washington.
For the Moon administration, which has repeatedly proposed such dialogue to the North, the resumption of bilateral talks in itself represents a long-awaited step forward.
But the South Korean government should avoid overestimating the chance of the development leading to a peaceful solution and guard against getting carried away by Kim’s move.
The immediate challenge is to avoid military conflict in the Korean Peninsula, and the long-term question is how to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
There can be no stable progress toward these goals without support from the other key state players concerned: Japan, the United States, China and Russia.
The South Korean government should not forget this reality and maintain close communications with Japan and the United States in holding talks with the North.
In his New Year’s speech, Kim said tensions in the region should be eased to create a peaceful environment.
That’s true. But it is North Korea that contributed to the rise in tension in the first place by taking one provocative action after another in the face of international criticism.
If it is serious about trying to defuse the crisis, Pyongyang should at least stop test-launching intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The United Nations has enhanced sanctions against North Korea for its weapons programs.
Although there have been some violations of the sanctions, such as smuggling oil products into North Korea, the international community is following the U.N. Security Council resolutions to punish Pyongyang with unprecedented strictness.
It is too early to predict what effects the sanctions will generate. But Kim is undoubtedly unsettled by the harsh measures.
This is a landmark year for North Korea–the 70th anniversary of its foundation. Kim is longing for specific achievements he can show to his domestic audience, such as the suspension of military exercises between South Korea and the United States.
The South Korean government is facing a formidable diplomatic challenge. We hope it will demonstrate its diplomatic prowess by ensuring that the new round of North-South talks will lead to a real first step toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with a tough-minded strategy to deal with Pyongyang’s ruses.
Japan and the United States should not spare any effort to support South Korea.
The shift in North Korea’s attitude, even if it is only surface deep, opens a window of opportunity. Tokyo and Washington need to make astute diplomatic moves based on their unity to prod North Korea into seeking dialogue with them as well.