No better time for Koreas to sit at talks table
At the beginning of this year, Pyongyang launched a peace offensive with Seoul through North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year address. At the PyeongChang Winter Olympics opening ceremony earlier this month, South and North Korean delegates marched together with a unified Korean flag. The two nations also formed a joint female ice hockey team for the first time. Kim Jong-un also dispatched his younger sister Kim Yo-jong to Seoul.
Kim Yo-jong is known for her political influence. Being her brother’s most trusted aide, talking to her is like directly conversing with Kim Jong-un. Therefore, South Korean President Moon Jaein had a three-hour meeting with the North Korean delegation, including Kim Yo-jong, probably over issues such as the nuclear crisis, inter-Korean relations and the future of the Korean Peninsula.
But Moon avoided a direct response to Kim Jong-un’s invitation to visit Pyongyang, calling for efforts to “create the right conditions” for a visit. He also urged Pyongyang to proactively seek a dialogue with Washington. Obviously, North Korea’s attempts to interact with South Korea while bypassing the US did not work given the close alliance between Washington and Seoul.
Thanks to the Winter Olympics, the two Koreas have come together and are building their mutual trust through dialogue, which is turning to be a major starting point toward peace on the peninsula.
However, the highly anticipated dialogue between the US and North Korea did not take place. Although Seoul tried to sit US Vice President Mike Pence and Kim Yo-jong at the same dinner table before the opening ceremony, Pence only made a brief appearance and left the reception venue after five minutes.
Pence’s attitude was not surprising. Before his visit to South Korea, he had said, “We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games.” He also said the US would roll out “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions against North Korea ever,” adding “we will continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all.”
North Korea has also not shown eagerness for talks with the US. Jo Yongsam, a senior foreign ministry official of North Korea, was quoted by Korean Central News Agency as saying, “We’ve never begged for dialogue with the US and it will be the same now and forever.”
The Korean Peninsula is standing at a crossroads. If South Korea keeps postponing its joint military drills with the US indefinitely and North Korea keeps halting nuclear and missile tests, the two sides would continue their dialogue and can start discussing the next topic – resuming reunions of separated families. During the process, Pyongyang and Washington can try to make some diplomatic contacts.
And there may be another scenario. If South Korea is pressured by the US to resume joint military drills and Pyongyang continues its nuclear and missile tests, the peninsula would again be engulfed in tensions.
In this sense, whether Seoul can persuade Washington to keep delaying their military exercises is the key to turning things around.
While the dual suspension proceeds, South Korea and China should encourage Pyongyang and Washington to talk and engage with each other. They need to contribute to making the current conciliatory atmosphere last longer and help resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully and simultaneously promoting denuclearization and the establishment of a peaceful mechanism on the peninsula.