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New talks between South and North Korea: détente or trap?

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South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed-wire fence near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

North Korea and South Korea agreed on January 5 to hold their first talks in more than two years. The announcement came hours after Seoul and Washington decided to postpone joint military exercises until after the Winter Olympics. While the move is welcomed by some, others suspect ulterior motives by Pyongyang.


The meeting, the first since December 2015, will take place in Panmunjom, the truce village in the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.

On Friday, North Korea accepted Seoul's offer for high-level talks to discuss the North's participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will be held from Feb. 9-25.

It is very dangerous to have North Korea at the table.
North and South Korea: detente or trap? 05/01/2018 - by Jan van der Made Listen

The announcement came a day after South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump agreed to postpone their countries' regular joint military exercises during the Olympics.

“The two leaders [of the US and South Korea] agreed to de-conflict the Olympics and our military exercises so that United States and Republic of Korea forces can focus on ensuring the security of the Games,” says a White House statement on January 4.

But, more importantly, the South's invitation, made on Monday, may have been a direct reaction to remarks made by North-Korea’s strongman Kim Jung-Un.

In his New Year Adress, he offered an olive branch, saying that in order to celebrate the games, “we should improve the frozen inter-Korean relations.”

Kim Jung-Un also said that North Korea will not be the first to pull the nuclear trigger, unless attacked first: “our country will [not] have recourse to nuclear weapons unless hostile forces of aggression violate its sovereignty,” he was quoted as saying by the official North Korean Central News Agency.

Pyongyang’s softened stance may have been influenced by China.

In a recently leaked internal document of the Chinese Communist Party, that was published by the Washington Free Beacon, an online publication, the Central Committee sets out China’s Korea policy, saying that it will make only “a symbolic handling or punishment,” when it comes to UN sanctions, while “greatly promote increasing trade,” with North Korea and even “increase investment in Korean defensive military construction.”

While this violates the spirit of the UN sanctions, China will “seriously warn the Korean authorities not to overdo things on the nuclear issue,” and “maintain restraint.”

There is some skepticism as to the authenticity of the document, where some [notably South Korean] Sinologists flat-out reject it as a “fake” and while Western Sinologists give it the benefit of the doubt.

“It is realpolitik,” says Michael Dillon, in independent China scholar, after reviewing the document. “[China] is effectively paying lip service only to the sanctions as policy.”

He says he suspects that the Chinese government “considers now that they can get away with that in terms of relations with the US,” judging that “it is fairly clear that the US policy on China as on many other parts of the world is in a complete mess. It is not strong, the president contradicts the Secretary of State, and both of them are contradicted by the US ambassador to the UN.

“So I suspect that [Beijing] sees a window where US policy is weak, and it is willing to go against the UN, if it can achieve concrete results on the ground.”

If genuine, the document, titled The Decision of General Office of the Communist Party of China on Conducting Communication and Coordination Work between Our Country and The Democratic People's Republic of Korea for Further In-depth Solution of Its Nuclear Issue, came out on September 15, the same that that North Korea held one of its last long range missile tests that triggered another emergency meeting by the UN Security Council, reinforcing sanctions.

Since that date, North Korea has considerably scaled down the testing of advanced military weapons.

In 2017, Pyongyang held 16 long range missile tests, but only one after September 15, and no more nuclear tests.

Meanwhile, the subsequent détente was welcomed in South Korea.

“It is a wonderful signal,” says Noh Jungsun, president of the Reunification and Reconciliation Committee of the Korean Council of Churches.

“Both North Korea and South Korea are going to have a talk this coming 9th of January, around ten o’clock.

“Last year we were approaching a nuclear war, but fortunately, people all over Korea are very hopeful now that the war is going slowly away.

“We need to be more patient in waiting, but it is a really hopeful sign now.

But others are sceptical, and claim that Washington is not at all happy with the possibility of direct talks between the North and the South:

“The reason why the US has been opposed to any talks with North Korea is that [ ... ] it is very dangerous to have North Korea on the table,” says Jung Yeop Woo, a senior researcher with the Asian Institute in Seoul.

“For example, if North Korea asks for the lifting of some sanctions, South Korea, in the hope to have the North continuously at the negotiating table, might ask to the US and the UN to lift some sanctions. And that is the beginning point of a disparity between the [South] Korean government and the United States.”

So it remains to be seen if this rapprochement is something temporary, or if it will lead to a long-term reconciliation between the north and the south.