Korean Peninsula

Korean Peninsula: Why is Pyongyang reaching out to Seoul?

Published : August 03, 2021 13:05 IST

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) has staked his political legacy on building better ties with the North but he has so far failed to secure any meaningful concessions from Kim Jong Un (L). Photo: AFP

South Korea appears keen to help its belligerent neighbor — but critics warn that the North has little to offer in return.

The resumption of communications between North and South Korea across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has triggered renewed hopes of detente on a peninsula that has been divided since the end of the Korean War in 1953. It also raised expectations that a solution to the problems associated with Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs could, potentially, be found.

The North reopened links, which had been shut down since June 2020, at 10 a.m. on July 27, with a comment by the state-run Korea Central News Agency declaring: "The restoration of the communication liaison lines will have positive effects on the improvement and development of North-South relations."

The first indication in more than a year that the North was willing to talk was met with delight in Seoul, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in has staked his political legacy in the remaining months of his administration on building better ties with Pyongyang.

Ministries were quick to dust off proposals on areas where the two sides might be able to initially make progress, with the South reiterating that it is willing to support the reconstruction of the North's rail and road infrastructure, restart joint tourism projects north of the DMZ and resume reunions of families divided since the end of the war nearly 70 years ago, initially by video link.

Prudence and realism

Despite the surge of optimism in the South, analysts are cautioning prudence and realism. The North, they emphasize, is not offering an olive branch to its ideological foe out of altruism. Experts say Kim Jong Un is motivated by the need to preserve a regime that has been brought to its knees by a combination of international sanctions imposed due to repeated nuclear tests, a series of bad harvests and self-imposed isolation for more than a year in an effort to keep the coronavirus out of a nationwith already poor medical infrastructure.

Experts warn the North has a well-established habit of promising restraint and better ties with the rest of the world in return for assistance, only to go back on its word as soon as it has taken delivery of the aid.

"It's an open secret that the situation in the North is very bad at the moment," said Robert Dujarric, co-director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. "They closed their own borders to keep the virus out, but there are credible reports of shortages of food, medicines, fuel and other necessities," he added.

"I would suggest that by reopening the communications links, they hope they will be able to get money and food or medical supplies," he said.

"Unfortunately for Kim, they do not have much to offer to the US and the Biden administration will be very aware that the governments before him all tried very hard to reach deals with the North, but that they never turned out to be productive," he told DW.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department described the reopening of the link as "a positive step" to reporters in Washington, adding that, "Diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula."

No surrender of nuclear weapons

But Dujarric and other analysts say there is little likelihood of Kim abandoning nuclear weapons that have taken billions of dollars and decades to build. There may be some small-scale developments, but Dujarric anticipates that Kim will demand too much and offer too little in return.

The primary reason for the North's apparent demonstration of a desire for better ties with its neighbor are worsening reports of hunger, with U.N. agencies warning that the nation's already strained food situation will deteriorate further in the coming four months.

North Korea is facing a shortage of around 860,000 tons of foodstuffs, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program. Kim has so far resisted appealing to the international community for assistance and merely called on his citizens to tighten their belts. Reaching out indicates that the regime has recognized the severity of the situation.

There are almost certainly other considerations behind the maneuver. South Korea goes to the polls for a general election next spring and the North hopes that by demonstrating a willingness to talk, the public might be elect another liberal leader who will continue to try to build bridges, rather than electing a more hawkish conservative. The North may also simultaneously be attempting to influence the South's security policies.

Pyongyang has been successful in convincing the Moon administration to dramatically scale down or cancel outright joint military exercises with the US over the last four years and is attempting to do the same again. An official of the South Korean Unification Ministry on July 30 proposed that joint drills scheduled for later this month be delayed to enable "engagement with the North," the JoongAng Daily reported.

South Korea-U.S. security rift

A side-effect of the debate on the drills that is beneficial to the North is the creation of a deeper rift between South Korea and the U.S., whose military is known to be very concerned at the gradual degradation of its abilities on the Korean Peninsula as a result of not being able to carry out regular exercises.

Yet, others in the South — including some who admit they do not trust the government in North Korea — say any opportunity for better relations with their neighbors need to be seized.

"Kim has already said publicly that there are shortages of food and medicine, so the situation must be very serious for him to say that to his people," said Ahn Yinhay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul.

"I would not say we should trust them completely, but it is possible that Kim is hoping for another summit as well as food and other aid," she said. "If we want to see progress in our relationship with the North, we have to do something. We can provide food and vaccines, but we need to rebuild this relationship and the first step is through dialogue."