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Japan, ROK, U.S. partnership at peril with visit of DPRK high-ranking official

North Korea will send Kim Yong Nam, the regime’s constitution-designated head of state and president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, to the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics, which will begin from Feb. 9. This means that South Korea’s desire to seek the stabilization of the Korean Peninsula via dialogue coincides with North Korea’s ambition to look for ways to hold dialogue with the U.S. via South Korea, but this may jeopardize concerted efforts among Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to protest against North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile development.

 

South Korea expects the visit by Pyongyang’s high-ranking official to help create momentum for North-South dialogue. The visit will also allow Seoul to facilitate dialogue between the North and the U.S., as a high-ranking U.S. official will visit the country around the same time. This will help the government of President Moon Jae-in play up at home and abroad its efforts to improve the North-South ties, as the government there identifies the issue as a top priority.

 

Kim Jong Nam has no effective authority. Yet in form, he is Pyongyang’s second-highest ranking official. This means his “standing” is on par with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s. The two officials are expected to be in the same VIP room during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. If they do meet, the interests of the two Koreas will have matched.

 

But easily agreeing to hold dialogue may send the wrong message to North Korea and the rest of the world. U.S. President Donald Trump severely criticized North Korea in his recent State of the Union speech. Many people view that he is not enthusiastic about holding dialogue. Whether the U.S. will agree to make contact with North Korea will likely become the focus of attention.

 

It is also difficult for Japan to accept dialogue with North Korea. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he will attend the Olympics’ opening ceremony, he noted that “to deal with North Korea’s threat, I would like to convey to President Moon the need to maintain our trilateral partnership with South Korea and the U.S. and pressure.” If South Korea goes overboard and calls for dialogue with the North, there may arise the view that Seoul undervalues its trilateral partnership with Japan and the U.S., and Pyongyang may take advantage of the situation. (Abridged)

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