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The two Koreas talk, but is it a ruse by the North?

March 6, 2018

The two Koreas seem optimistic over the outcome of the early rounds of bilateral talks, but thornier issues — notably the North's nuclear arsenal — will prove to be far more difficult to resolve, say analysts.

Nordkorea Kim Jong Un spricht mit südkoreanischer Delegation
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/KCNA

The leaders of North and South Korea have agreed to a summit meeting in late April, a top security adviser of South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced Tuesday. Both countries have also agreed to set up a telephone hotline between their leaders. 

But the decision to organize a meeting between Moon and the North's leader Kim Jong Un was probably one of the easiest items for the two sides to agree upon. It's too early to predict if this summit will yield any positive results in terms of reducing tensions between North Korea and the US. Washington has stressed that any talks with Pyongyang should address the issue of the regime's nuclear arsenal.  

The North, however, has consistently stated that its nuclear weapons guarantee its national security and are not negotiable. 

Read more: Jim Mattis: 'Too early' to tell if Olympics can reduce tensions between Koreas

Speaking in Seoul on Tuesday afternoon, Moon again emphasized the need for dialogue with the North and insisted that his emissaries had initiated efforts to build peace. "I think for most people, the fact that Kim was there in person for the meeting on Monday night came as a surprise," said Rah Jong-yil, a former head of South Korea's intelligence agency.

"But I also believe it speaks strongly to the effect that international sanctions are having on the regime," he added. "If there had been no sanctions, I do not believe Kim would have started this detente with his New Year's speech and all the moves that we have seen since surrounding the Winter Olympics and now the face-to-face meetings."

Referring to the five soldiers who defected across the Demilitarized Zone in the last few months, Rah added, "If they cannot feed their front-line troops, then the problems that the rest of the country are facing must be very serious." And while the US will be closely watching the North-South discussions, Rah said Washington is unlikely to budge from its basic demand that North Korea do away with its nuclear arsenal. 

US favors sanctions

"The US is happy to continue applying sanctions because they can see that they are working. They have forced the North to the discussion table already and this leverage over the regime there is only going to grow over time," he said. Given the dire situation in the North, Rah expects the regime to eventually concede to the US' demands in exchange for talks, although he offered a word of caution.

"We must remember that we have been here before and that North Korea has broken its promises in the past. They may agree to abolish their nuclear weapons, but the problem will be whether they actually will."

Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, says there are many positives that could come out of a meeting between Moon and Kim, but he also warns that North Korea's fundamental ambition of controlling the whole of the Korean Peninsula has not changed.

"Anything that results in eliminating or reducing the likelihood of kinetic attacks or violence on the peninsula will be a good thing," he told DW. "But it appears that we are headed into another cycle in which the North portrays itself as a reasonable, pluralistic, democratic regime that is ready to communicate and cooperate with the outside world before they revert to the principles of a proletariat dictatorship."

Read more: Majority of South Koreans favor North Korea 'friendship'

In good faith or buying time?

Pinkston added that Moon wants to create the conditions that would allow the North to return to talks on their nuclear weapons, but the North has to bargain in good faith and meet its international commitments. "We can only wait and see quite how far they are willing to go."

There are some in South Korea who have little faith that the North has changed its tune and is ready to rejoin the international community. For conservatives, Moon is risking the nation's security by negotiating with a regime that is still bent on dominating the South.

On Sunday, Hong Joon-pyo, the head of the Liberty Korea Party, posted a message on his Facebook page comparing Moon's policy of engagement towards the North to that of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler ahead of Nazi Germany's invasion and occupation of the nations of Eastern Europe in the late 1930s.

"The Moon Jae-in government's policy of begging North Korea for dialogue and talks about special envoys are similar to Chamberlain's policy of appeasement towards Germany and will end up helping the North to buy time to complete its nuclear weapons," Hoon wrote.

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea