Talks of inter-Korean summit surface but US-North Korea talks will be key

Kim Yo Jong, vice director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, handed President Moon Jae In a handwritten letter from Kim Jong Un in her capacity as a special envoy. She also took the opportunity to officially invite South Korea’s President Moon to visit Pyongyang, raising the possibility of a third inter-Korean summit. Moon’s response was, “Let’s try to create an environment where that can be possible.” However, analysts argue that considering the situation surrounding the North Korean nuclear issue, considerable obstacles to an inter-Korean summit exist.  
Analysts speculate that if no progress is made on the North Korean nuclear issue, a visit by President Moon will not be easy. North Korea is refusing to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons and is publicly proclaiming to have completed its nuclear armament. Meanwhile, the position of the US is that North Korea must take sincere actions toward denuclearization. Between these two positions, it is difficult for the South Korean government to make headway. 
This reality was made clear when Moon told Kim Yo Jong that “in order to improve inter-Korean relations, there must first be talks between North Korea and the US” and asked that “North Korea be proactive in initiating talks with the US.” 
Kang Choi, vice-director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said in a phone call with Daily NK that “at the current stage, there is a very low possibility for an inter-Korean summit.” He added that “there are too many risks involved in pursuing an inter-Korean summit when North Korea has not mentioned the nuclear issue and is refusing to change its position on it.” 
Some are pointing out that if an inter-Korean summit takes place despite North Korea not taking any sincere actions toward denuclearization, this would send the wrong signal to the US and the international community. Until a more favorable environment is first created, as President Moon has said, the South Korean government has no choice but to take a cautious approach to the issue of a possible summit. 
The key is whether North Korea and the US agree to engage in talks. President Moon mentioned the importance of US-North Korea talks taking place before a visit to North Korea, which can be interpreted as an indirect message that an inter-Korean summit will only be viable if a favorable environment between the US and North Korea is first created on the premise of denuclearization. 
Professor Hyunwook Kim of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, noted that “the current Trump administration is prioritizing the North Korean issue, and it will continue to pursue a hardline approach of pressuring North Korea. In this context, the South Korean government has to push North Korea to engage in talks with the US.” 
However, several factors make it difficult for North Korea and the US to engage in talks anytime soon. The pre-conditions and objectives for such talks sharply differ between the two sides, and there is a strong possibility that North Korea will continue to engage in provocative actions after the Pyeongchang Olympics. Meanwhile, the US continues to pursue stronger sanctions and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. 
“A favorable environment can only be created if there’s momentum behind US-North Korea talks. But the US is already talking of maritime interdiction against the North, and within the South Korean government, there are hardline opinions that peace cannot be assumed to be an outcome of inter-Korean talks. So it’s not an easy place to be in for the South Korean government,” Professor Kim said.  
Spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification Taehyun Baek said on February 12 at a press briefing that “it’s not a situation where only the two Koreas can make progress. So the South Korean government is making multilateral efforts to create a virtuous cycle in which inter-Korean relations and the North Korean nuclear issue will both be addressed.” 
The Ministry of Unification has published materials detailing the high-level North Korean delegation’s visits to the South. Concerning future plans for inter-Korean relations, the publication emphasized that “the South Korean government intends to pursue a virtuous cycle in which inter-Korean relations and denuclearization go hand in hand. And depending on the context, through the improvement of inter-Korean relations, it will bring about progress in US-North Korea talks.” 
The Ministry of Unification also announced that “based on a firm position of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, the South Korean government will simultaneously cooperate with the international community’s sanctions against North Korea and maintain a position of working toward a peaceful solution.” 
“When there is progress made in denuclearization, the environment will be ready for genuine progress in inter-Korean relations,” it adds.