The Koreas

Glimmer of peace

Print edition : March 16, 2018

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on February 9. Close behind them is Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: DOUG MILLS/NYT

South Korean President Moon Jae-in with Kim Yo-jong at a concert by Pyongyang’s Samjiyon Orchestra in Seoul on February 11. Photo: AFP

North Korean cheerleaders wave unified Korean flags as they perform at Gangneung Ice Arena on February 10, the final day of Pence’s visit. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

The U.S. is forced to tone down its aggressive rhetoric after the two Koreas make significant bilateral moves to bring about a thaw in their relations.

Even as the United States was ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea, South Korea and North Korea surprised the international community by initiating a thaw in bilateral relations. The Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February provided an excuse for both the Koreas to break the ice. Pyongyang initiated the thaw by announcing in early January that it was restoring the military hotline between the two countries, which had been suspended for two years. In a New Year address, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, said that he was open to the resumption of dialogue with South Korea. Soon afterwards, the North Korean government announced its decision to not only participate in the winter games but also to send a high-level political delegation to the South. This diplomatic move, which was made in coordination with the South Korean government, apparently caught the Trump administration on the wrong foot.

The North Korean government was represented at the Winter Olympics by the country’s President, Kim Yong-nam, and Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s only sister and one of his closest advisers. Given her relatively young age and her pleasing personality, she was the centre of attraction during her three-day visit to the South. It was also the first ever visit by a member of the North Korean ruling family to the South. The North Korean delegation brought with it a handwritten letter from Kim Jong-un, inviting South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang for “an early summit meeting”. Only a few months earlier, the North and the South were hurling threats and accusations against each other. But North Korea’s severest criticisms were reserved for the U.S. and Japan.

The current South Korean President had won elections on the promise to improve relations with the North. President Moon was a close associate of the late Kim Dae-jung, a former President of the country and the architect of its “sunshine policy” towards North Korea. Kim Dae-jung had visited the North when he was President in an effort to bolster peace and tranquility on the Korean peninsula. South Korean Presidents visited Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007 to hold summit-level talks. “Many considered it an impossible dream to have an Olympics of peace in which North Korea would participate and the two Koreas would form a joint team,” President Moon said in an address. He conveyed to the North Korean leaders who had come to attend the Olympics that he was open to visiting Pyongyang at an opportune time. He also told the North Korean delegation that the U.S. would have to be involved in the Korean peace talks for them to be meaningful. At the same time, he expressed the hope that the new developments would lead to a real dialogue process that would work towards the denuclearisation of the peninsula.

The Trump administration has made it clear, much to the chagrin of the South Korean government, that it will not take kindly to South Korea unilaterally agreeing to talks with North Korea. The South Korean government, given its strong security ties with the U.S., is unwilling as yet to fully grasp the olive branch being offered by the North. Last year, when tensions were running high, President Moon agreed to the deployment of additional American THAAD missile defence systems on Korean soil, though he had pledged during his campaign that there would be no deployment of the missiles. North Korea objected strongly to the deployment. China and Russia also conveyed their strong displeasure.

U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis claimed to the American media after the recent developments that there were no differences of opinion between the U.S. and South Korea over resuming dialogue with the North. The Trump administration, taking into account the public opinion in South Korea after the highly publicised visit of the North Korean leader’s sister, has slightly altered its stance. It had previously stated that talks would take place only if North Korea gave a commitment to give up its nuclear and missile arsenal. North Korea has been reiterating that there is no question of giving up its nuclear weapons. Choe Ryong-hae, a senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party, said in a speech to mark the birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung on February 15 that the North would further bolster its nuclear and missile self-defence capabilities.

To coincide with the opening of the Winter Olympics, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had embarked on an East Asian tour to pile up diplomatic and military pressure on North Korea. Pence said in Tokyo in the second week of February that the U.S. was going to announce “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever”. Under the draconian sanctions that are already in place, even uniforms and sports equipment meant for North Korean teams participating in the Olympics were not exempted. Throughout his visit, Pence heaped scorn on the North’s efforts to defuse tensions. He even refused to attend an official reception hosted by the South Koreans because Kim Yo-jong would be there. Pointedly, he refused to stand up when the unified Korean team marched together at the opening ceremony.

South Koreans viewed this act as an insult to their nation and their President. South Korea plans to keep the diplomatic momentum going with the North by holding a reunion of families who were separated by the partition of the country and the Korean War. However, Pence’s trip was completely overshadowed by the media frenzy over the presence of Kim Yo-jong. North Korea had, of course, stressed that the presence of its high-level delegation in the South was not an effort to establish contact with the Americans.

But after the North’s surprise invitation to President Moon to visit Pyongyang and the growing public support in the South for a resumption of peace talks, the American side had to backtrack a little. Pence, speaking to the American media on his way back from Seoul after the Olympics festivities, said that the U.S. could consider the resumption of talks with North Korea but the policy of “maximum pressure” would continue. The U.S. media reported that President Moon had assured the Americans that he had clearly told the North Koreans that no concessions would be given to them until active steps towards denuclearisation were taken. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, warned the North in the second week of February that time was running out for a peaceful solution to the crisis in the Korean peninsula. He told the Senate Intelligence Committee that North Korea posed “a potential existential threat” to his country. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director, Mike Pompeo, told the congressional hearing that there was no hint of a “strategic desire” on the part of North Korea to change its nuclear posture towards Washington.

The Trump administration has been repeatedly emphasising that “all options are open” to deal with the so-called existential threat from the small and impoverished state of North Korea. President Donald Trump said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year that he would “totally destroy” the North if it threatened to use nuclear weapons against American targets. Coats noted in his statement that the North had expressed no desire to negotiate away its nuclear arsenal. “Decision time is coming even closer in how we respond to this,” he said.

A hawkish section in the top echelons of the Trump administration has been advocating a pre-emptive military strike against the nuclear and missile sites in North Korea. Those in support of delivering a “bloody nose” to North Korea believe that pre-emptive strikes will convince it to give up the weapons it has assiduously developed and which it believes are essential for its survival as a sovereign nation.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had offered talks with North Korea last year, but he was quickly contradicted by President Trump. The thaw in North-South relations will soon be tested. North Korea has been objecting to the large-scale joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises routinely held on the Korean peninsula. This year’s exercise, which was to be held in February, was postponed after a request from South Korea. The North would not have participated in the Winter Olympics if the military exercises had been conducted on schedule. The Americans and their closest ally in the region, Japan, were unhappy with the rescheduling. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested to South Korea about it. President Moon pointed out that it was not appropriate for Abe to interfere in the matter.

No dates have been announced for the joint exercises for this year, code-named “Foal Eagle” and “Key Resolve”. China and Russia have called on the U.S. to not go ahead with the military exercises. The North has indicated that it will stop its nuclear and missile tests if the Americans exercise military restraint on the peninsula. China and Russia have called for a “double freeze” on the peninsula. This stipulates a simultaneous halt to the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and North Korean nuclear tests.

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