Why Did North Korea “Cave” On Talks With South?

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Why Did North Korea “Cave” On Talks With South?

After repeatedly rejecting South Korea’s proposals to hold government-level talks, Pyongyang has reversed itself. Why?

North and South Korea will hold working level talks on Sunday with the aim of preparing the way for ministerial level talks at a later date.

The talks were prompted by a surprise proposal from Pyongyang on Thursday calling for working level talks on July 15th between the two governments to begin the process of trying to restart operations at Kaesong Industrial Complex and resume South Korean tours of the Mt. Kumgang resort, both of which are joint development projects initiated during South Korea’s sunshine policy era.

Previously, North Korea had proposed holding a dialogue with private civilians from the South, which Seoul rejected insisting that governmental working-level talks be held instead.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry responded within an hour to the North’s offer on Thursday, proposing instead that the two countries hold “ministerial-level South-North talks on June 12 in Seoul in order to resolve issues of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the Mt. Kumgang resort and separated families.” The statement added that it “positively view[ed]” the North’s offer.

Pyongyang counter-offered the following day by saying that it believed mistrust was too ingrained to go immediately to ministerial-level talks, and instead suggested the two sides begin with working-level talks (as South Korea first proposed in April and May) in Kaesong on June 9th. The North Korean statement also said it would reopen the Kanmunjom Red Cross communication channel starting at 2 PM local time on Friday, and asked Seoul to respond to the proposal through there.

South Korea used the channel on Friday to agree to all of the North's terms expect location, which it proposed by switched to Panmunjom, a village on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where the ceasefire ending active fighting in the Korean War was signed and the venue for past meetings between North and South Korea. North Korea accepted the new venue on Saturday morning local time.

Seoul’s proposal to hold working-level talks last month suggested the same location as the venue. This proposal was rejected by North Korea at the time. The village is about 10 km away from Kaesong.

Thus, North Korea ultimately accepted nearly all of the conditions South Korea laid out in a proposal last month, although Pyongyang did successful resist the South’s brief attempt this week to restart talks at the ministerial-level and hold the negotiations in Seoul. The two sides last held working-level talks in 2011 and ministerial-level talks in 2007.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye attributed North Korea’s about-face to the strong military stance Seoul had taken in the face of Pyongyang’s daily threats in April and May. Speaking at a lunch with military leaders on Friday, President Park said: "Yesterday, North Korea proposed inter-Korean government-to-government talks that it has opposed so far. This was possible because of all the hard work of our troops and commanders who have maintained a firm security posture."

She also vowed to continue to push for her "Korean Peninsula trust process,” but said her “trustpolitik” policy was only possible with a strong military position to back it up.

"If national security is shaken, neither dialogue nor peace can stand, just like we cannot build buildings on a shaking foundation. Only when we have perfect military readiness and deterrence against North Korea can we make the North not dare think of provocations, and induce a genuine change."

At a breakfast in Washington on Friday, a U.S. Air Force Commander made similar remarks, arguing that including two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers in exercises with South Korea in April had quieted North Korea. Previously, U.S. officials worried it had further escalated tensions.

Despite these statements, China is the more likely reason North Korea suddenly reversed its position. Late last month Kim Jong-Un sent a special envoy to China, Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, who delivered a hand-written note from Kim to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kim's goal in sending Choe to China was widely believed to convince Chinese officials to accord Kim a state visit.

Although Choe was eventually given audiences with General Fan Changlong, a Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and President Xi, the trip did not go well for North Korea. Chinese officials chastised North Korea repeatedly and took the unprecedented step of making details of the meetings public through Chinese media. In the end, Kim did not receive the offer to visit China that he was reportedly seeking.

Moreover, in the ultimate snub to North Korea, China and South Korea jointly announced President Park would visit China in June while Choe was in Beijing, despite not even having exact dates of her trip decided upon. China’s message to Pyongyang was unmistakenable.

Thus, North Korea’s decision to acquiesce to China’s demands and offer talks with South Korea just days before Xi Jinping was set to hold a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama is likely aimed at getting back on China’s good side.

Ultimately, Kim had little choice. He perpetuated a crisis without an apparent endgame in mind. Consequently, he gained nothing from it, nor would he have by holding out longer. Even Pyongyang knows when to cut its losses… eventually.