North Korea negotiations: South Korea needs eyes wide open

Moon Jae In and Kim Jong Un during the September 2018 inter-Korean summit in Pyognyang
Moon Jae In and Kim Jong Un during the September 2018 inter-Korean summit in Pyognyang. Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

Two weeks have passed since President Moon Jae In proposed another inter-Korean summit. On April 15, Moon officially proposed an inter-Korean summit with North Korea “regardless of place, and without a need for formalities,” but North Korea has yet to respond. The South Korean government is reportedly planning to send a special envoy to North Korea to push the proposal forward, but there has been no news on that front either.

South Korea held an event celebrating the first anniversary of the April 27 Panmunjom Joint Declaration. The event commemorated the historic first handshake of the two leaders at Panmunjom, but North Korean representatives did not show up.

It is clear from North Korea’s recent behavior, however, where the country’s attention is currently focused. Leader Kim Jong Un visited Russia from April 24 – 26 for the first time since gaining power and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was part of his “rallying of the allies” following his trips to China. Before visiting Russia, Kim even visited several military-related sites for the first time in five months, with emphasis placed on an air force training facility along with observing the testing of a “new tactical weapon.”

None of these visits were serious enough to halt the momentum of negotiations currently in play, but Kim’s return to military-related activities – something he refrained from doing for quite some time – suggests that he is trying to send a message to the US that North Korea is prepared to return to its old ways. North Korean media reported that Kim criticized America’s unilateral attitude during his summit with Putin, saying that “the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula rests on the future attitude of the US.”

North Korea Ignores Moon’s Proposal for New Summit

It is clear how North Korea views South Korea when comparing what is transpiring today with what happened in the run-up to the hurried second inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom on May 26. When President Trump announced the cancellation of the US-DPRK summit on May 24, Kim Jong Un was quick to turn directly to President Moon to resuscitate hopes for the summit. President Moon met with Chairman Kim just one day after receiving the North Korean leader’s call for assistance. Moon likely believed that building trust between the two Koreas to solve their problems was more important than anything else.

North Korea has not responded for two weeks to President Moon’s proposal for another inter-Korean summit, however. The regime would not keep the South Korean president waiting if there was genuine interest in the proposal, no matter how preoccupied it is with the US and Russia.

North Korean media is pressuring South Korea to take the country’s side without relying on “foreign powers.” North Korea may believe that contact with South Korea, which is entangled in an alliance with the US, may not benefit them much now that they’ve decided to play hardball with the US over the long run. North Korea may simply believe that there’s just no need for South Korea anymore. North Korea’s abandonment of South Korea has created problems for the South Korean government’s plans to resolve the US-DPRK impasse through inter-Korean talks.

Rational Reflections on the Past

North Korea appears to be giving South Korea the cold shoulder, despite the Moon administration’s assistance when they faced difficulties. Critics of the Moon government are saying that South Korea has just fallen for North Korea’s tricks again. While there’s a need to watch what happens in the future, a rational reflection on the process of dialogue between the two Koreas and the US and North Korea is needed now that talks between all of the parties have stagnated. Scrutinizing the past will help prepare ourselves for the future.

First, there is no need to criticize the South Korean government for trying to resolve issues involving the Korean Peninsula through dialogue. Even if that dialogue is now on the rocks and perhaps even subject to some manipulation by North Korea, there’s no need to declare the government’s intentions as ill-conceived. The government of a divided country has the responsibility to work toward a peaceful resolution, no matter how small the possibility may appear.

However, there is a need to rethink whether the South Korean government has put too much weight on dialogue alone. North Korea is now arguing for the dismantling of Yongbyon only, a line of argument that makes its claims to desire denuclearization fall flat. There is therefore a need to rethink whether the South Korean government simply ignored criticism from people who were suspicious of North Korea’s intentions.

If the South Korean government had accepted critical perspectives and dug a bit deeper into what North Korea meant by “denuclearization” – regardless of North Korea’s reactions – while also clearly presenting what North Korea needed to do, there may have been a way to prevent the “no-deal” in Hanoi. The failure of the Hanoi talks led to the current impasse in inter-Korean relations. The North Korean denuclearization negotiations are not easy by any measure, but there’s a need to rethink whether the South Korean government over emphasized positive scenarios due to its ambitions for the future.

Critical Voices Must Also Be Heard

The situation on the Korean Peninsula will likely remain fluid. Both the US and North Korea are continuing to leave the door open for dialogue, which is a positive sign. However, both sides are at odds over what denuclearization actually entails. This means that neither party is likely to yield to the other.

Given the increasingly fluid situation, judgments based on wishful thinking alone should be avoided. The failure to engage in rational, realistic assessments could create an even more precarious situation than we are currently facing. We must also guard against intentionally ignoring real criticisms that emerge from the debate between progressives and conservatives in South Korea. The South Korean government should adhere to its own policy directions, but not at the expense of acknowledging reality, however inconvenient it may be.

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.