North Korea has agreed to send athletes to next month’s Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang after inter-Korean talks held in a border village of Panmunjom on January 9th, the first high-level meeting between the two Koreas in more than two years. The two sides have also agreed to hold military dialogue and resolve issues through negotiations.
However, when South Korea attempted to raise the issue of North Korea’s accelerating nuclear programme, it was pushed back firmly. Seoul must now ensure that North Korean participation in the Winter Games will not violate UN sanctions, which were tightened just a few weeks ago.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who was elected last May on a platform of detente towards the North, has said he would be open to a summit with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un as Seoul’s top priority is to defuse tensions on the divided peninsula (technically, South Korea remains at war with the North after the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice instead of a peace treaty).
Pyongyang tested three intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth nuclear test, a possible hydrogen bomb, in the past year. The most recent missile had the range to reach the US mainland, but doubts remain that it could hit Washington with a nuclear warhead.
The development of North Korean nuclear weapons is intolerable for Washington. The US strategy has been to isolate and squeeze the dynastic regime economically until Mr Kim agrees to scale back his nuclear ambitions.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly issued threats of military action should North Korea threaten the US. However, any pre-emptive military action aimed at eliminating the North Korean nuclear programme will almost certainly lead to retaliation from the Kim regime that could cause massive casualties in Seoul, a city of 10 million people that is within the range of North Korean artillery. Furthermore, there is no guarantee the US could destroy North Korea’s whole nuclear programme in a short air campaign.
After a year of hostile rhetoric, Mr Kim struck a warmer tone in his New Year’s speech, when he signalled that a path to dialogue with Seoul was open, but he also boasted of the nuclear button on his desk. That led to Mr Trump’s retort that his button was bigger and better. There are concerns that Pyongyang’s overtures are tactical, with the aim to drive a wedge between South Korea and its ally the US.
Mr Kim has repeatedly called to world to accept North Korea as a nuclear power. He appears to see nuclear weapons and the delivery system as a guarantee of his survival, and so is unlikely to give them up.
China, North Korea’s largest trading partner and chief ally, advocates the so-called freeze-for-freeze proposal that would require the US and South Korea to freeze their annual military exercises, considered by Pyongyang a serious provocation and a prelude to invasion, and North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile tests (Mr Trump has agreed to postpone regular joint military exercises with South Korea until the Winter Games conclude).
Photo: Korea.net (www.korea.net); Official Photographer : Jeon Han