As has been widely reported, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address contained a notable overture toward improved inter-Korean relations with his offer to send a delegation to participate in the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea. In Seoul, the Moon administration has quickly and enthusiastically taken up the offer.
For months, Seoul had proposed North-South talks and hoped Pyongyang would participate in the games as a way to reduce tensions and possibly move forward with more substantial negotiations. On January 2, with encouragement from the Blue House, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon proposed the two Koreas meet next Tuesday at the truce village at Panmunjom. If a meeting does ensue, it will be the first high-level inter-Korean talks since December 2015.
Although it has not yet responded specifically to Seoul’s offer for high-level talks at Panmunjom, Pyongyang did on Wednesday reopen the inter-Korean communication line and Seoul apparently made its first call today. Pyongyang had cut off the communication channel in February 2016 following then South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s closure of the jointly operated Kaesong Industrial Complex.
This week’s reciprocal overtures are the most recent iteration of a decades-old process of inter-Korean interaction. During the early 1970s amidst large power diplomatic maneuvering embodied in U.S.-Soviet détente, U.S.-Sino rapprochement, and Japanese-Sino normalization, both Koreas established their own independent inter-Korean diplomatic track. In 1972, North and South Korea issued the July 4 Joint Communiqué, which was the first document both sides had agreed upon since the division of the peninsula in 1945.
The communiqué established three principles for reunification, namely: independence from external forces or interference; peaceful reunification; and national unity above ideology or political system. It led to the setup of a hotline between Seoul and Pyongyang and a new level of inter-Korean dialogue, such as the North Korean-South Korea Red Cross talks, aimed at reuniting divided Korean families, and establishment of the South-North Coordinating Committee (SNCC), charged with easing tensions, preventing armed clashes, and solving the issue of unification.
However, dialogue quickly fell apart due, among other reasons, to clashing interpretations of the communiqué and disagreement over how reunification might be achieved. Moreover, from Seoul’s perspective, no abiding settlement could be reached without U.S. involvement; needless to say Seoul did not embrace the North’s insistence on an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the peninsula. Washington officially welcomed inter-Korean dialogue yet stayed keenly involved, monitoring its smaller ally’s behavior. Meanwhile, throughout the 1970s (and thereafter), Seoul was anxious over Pyongyang’s repeated attempts to establish direct talks with the United States, fearing its American ally might compromise its fundamental interests in some kind of deal to which it was not a party.
Fast-forward to the present and Seoul is once again embracing a new attempt at inter-Korean dialogue. While the Moon administration is certainly not rapidly pursuing a grand bargain that would leave Washington out in the cold or compromise fundamental U.S. interests, its appeals to Pyongyang undoubtedly run counter to the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign.
The fact remains that no real, sustainable progress can ultimately be made between the two Koreas without U.S. involvement. Consistent with past experience, Washington is intent on setting limits on current developments. Although President Donald Trump has tweeted his tentative support for the talks (and even claimed credit for them in his inimitable style), the White House has stated that its “policy on North Korea hasn’t changed at all.” Add to this, of course, Trump’s other erratic and taunting tweets, which reference his bigger, more powerful, and actually functional nuclear button.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley put it bluntly: “We won’t take any of the talks seriously if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea… we don’t think we need a Band-aid; we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture.” Trump administration officials have officially welcomed the talks, provided they are limited to the Olympics and Seoul not make any concessions to Pyongyang that the allies would later regret. In brief, the current U.S. position accords with that of a former official from the Obama administration, who said yesterday that Seoul should be kept on a short leash.
Seoul and Washington continue to coordinate closely and claim that Pyongyang will not divide them. Nevertheless, North Korea’s apparent conciliation is undoubtedly part of a longstanding practice of trying to drive a wedge between the allies.
Kim Jong-un has called on Seoul to end joint U.S.-ROK military exercises. Moon had already publicly requested the United States consider delaying the annual springtime Foal Eagle/Key Resolve military exercises until after the Olympic games. Today, Moon and Trump reached a tentative agreement to do just that. For Seoul, this is a positive, tension-reducing move, but it does not remove other issues and discord between the allies.
Pyongyang has also asked Seoul to stop allowing the United States to bring bombers and other strategic (i.e. nuclear capable) assets to the peninsula. Although Moon has previously stated he possesses a veto over any preemptive American military strikes against North Korea, it is highly doubtful Trump or the U.S. Department of Defense agree with the sentiment or will allow Seoul to call the shots on U.S. strategic deployments.
Furthermore, as part of its effort to review the actions of the disgraced Park administration, the Moon administration has broached the possibility of reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex (closed in early 2016), a move the United States surely opposes and sees as undermining the anti-Pyongyang sanctions regime. Plus, the Moon administration has recently discredited but still not voided the so-called “comfort women” deal signed in 2015 under Park. This adds a new layer to Seoul-Tokyo frictions, further problematizing already complicated trilateral military ties between the United States, Japan, and South Korea, which Washington sees as key to constraining Pyongyang.
In short, Seoul faces a real and inherent dilemma. On the one hand, it understandably strives to reduce tensions and mitigate the possibility of a conflict that would have immediate and utterly catastrophic consequences for the Korean people. Yet, on the other hand, some of the very same measures it adopts in pursuit of a more independent, peace-seeking path not only clash with stated U.S. policy goals, but also unfortunately and uncomfortably align with Pyongyang’s own preferences.