Author: Harry Cockburn
Posted on: The Independent | January 9th, 2018
Diplomatic efforts cautiously recognised as a breakthrough between Pyongyang and Seoul
North and South Korea have agreed to hold military talks after the two nations engaged in their first formal dialogue in more than two years.
The talks will focus on reducing the potential for military conflict and come during a summit at which the North announced it would send a high-ranking delegation to the South for the Winter Olympics.
The meeting at the South Korean border town of Panmunjom comes as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has renewed efforts to improve relations with the South after more than a year of turmoil due to Pyongyang’s increasing frequency of nuclear missile tests.
The North agreed to the talks after Seoul and Washington announced they would put planned military exercises on hold until after the Winter Paralympics end on 18 March.
Mr Kim’s administration had frequently cited the US-South Korean manoeuvres as a barrier to improving relations with the South, saying the war games are preparations for an invasion.
The diplomatic advance now raises the possibility of North Korean athletes taking part in the Winter Games, and even the prospect of the two Koreas conducting a joint march for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games which are to be held in the South Korean region of Pyeongchang, 110 miles southeast of Seoul.
The meeting has also raised South Korean hopes of resuming temporary reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 war which divided the country.
Was Trump’s belligerent approach to North Korea a success?
On the face of it, the bilateral efforts have been cautiously recognised as a breakthrough between Pyongyang and Seoul.
The United Nations described the communication between North and South as “critical to lowering the risk” in the region.
The Kremlin described the talks as “exactly the kind of dialogue that we said was necessary”, while China’s foreign ministry said it was “pleased to see this high-level talk between the two sides”.
America has been more circumspect. The US State Department said it welcomed the discourse between North and South as a “good first step”, but said it also wants to see talks on denuclearisation.
On Tuesday the head of North Korea’s delegation at the talks warned the South not to mention denuclearisation during the discussions, the South Korean government said in a statement.
US President Donald Trump credited himself with bringing about the talks, before describing the North Koreans as “fools”, but adding the summit was “a good thing”.
Last week Mr Trump said experts had “failed” to improve the situation and said it was his “firm and strong” rhetoric that had changed the situation.
On 4 January the President tweeted: “With all of the failed “experts” weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total “might” against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!”
An example of Mr Trump’s approach to diplomacy with the North Korean regime can be found on his Twitter feed less than 24 hours earlier, in which he wrote: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
Dr John Nilsson-Wright, a North East Asia specialist at Cambridge University and Chatham House, told The Independent the US President’s analysis of how the talks came about appeared to be “characteristic rhetorical bluster from Trump trying to claim a win in the face of something he wasn’t expecting.”
“I don’t see any evidence to say it was Trump’s approach that got the North Koreans to decide now is the right time to reach out to the South Koreans,” he added.
Instead, Dr Nilsson-Wright said one reason why Mr Kim may be eager to engage with the South could be “an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and Washington”.
“Often there’s an asymmetry between how the US sees relations with North Korea and the way past South Korean administrations have tended to,” he said.
Alternatively, faced with the prospect of “fire and fury” and an apparent increase in American appetite for pre-emptive military force, Mr Kim could genuinely be concerned “time was running out”, Dr Nilsson-Wright said.
“The North Koreans face the same ambiguity we face in trying to decode the position of the Americans, and therefore one interpretation is that Kim has acted now because he worries time is running out and he needs to be seen to be making some sort of overture that indicates he might be willing to negotiate.”
Another explanation according to Dr Nilsson-Wright, is that Mr Kim is considering “talking about talks as a way of slowing down the momentum in Washington, buying time, possibly allowing him at some point to test [weapons] again after the Olympics are over.”
“He has already extracted an unexpected concession which is to delay the joint military manoeuvres between the Americans and South Korea that were scheduled to take place before the Olympics.”
The delayed manoeuvres could be read as a sign of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s “leverage over the Americans”, Dr Nilsson-Wright said.
He added: “It makes sense, and behind all the rhetorical fire and fury bluster there appears to be a pragmatism even on the part of President Trump to defer to the South Koreans on this one.”