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Seoul Gov’t Moves to Revive Korean Peninsula Peace Process

2020-10-22

ⓒ YONHAP News

Attention is drawn to whether South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Korean Peninsula peace process initiative may gain traction again on the occasion of the Tokyo Olympic Games next year. In his New Year’s press conference in January this year, Moon voiced his hope that the Tokyo Olympics would serve as a chance to break the deadlock in the stalled inter-Korean relations and promote peace in the region. 


Apparently, the South Korean president seeks to use the Tokyo Olympics as an opportunity to restore South Korea-Japan relations as well as inter-Korean ties. Let’s hear from political commentator Lee Jong-hoon. 


Initially, Moon expected that another North Korea-U.S. summit would be held before the U.S. presidential election. But for now, such a summit is unlikely to take place. Now, Moon seems to be eyeing the Tokyo Olympics next year to find a breakthrough under the new U.S. administration. 


Regarding the Olympics, South Korea could discuss with the North relevant issues like the formation of a unified Korean team and the joint entrance at the opening ceremony. In the process of creating a favorable atmosphere for inter-Korean dialogue, South Korea could also facilitate talks between North Korea and the U.S. I think that’s what President Moon is hoping for. 


After North Korea’s participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, South and North Korea held a bilateral summit three times, while North Korea and the U.S. held their summit twice. In 2018, North Korea responded positively to Moon’s vision to turn the PyeongChang Winter Games into an Olympics of peace, and a dialogue mood was created naturally between the two sides. Moon seems to be hoping that he will revive this experience at the Tokyo Olympics. 


Meanwhile, on October 16, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said that there might be a chance to resume denuclearization talks with North Korea around the Tokyo Olympics in July next year. 

The remarks came after Suh Hoon, director of the National Security Office of South Korea’s presidential office, met with O’Brien during his visit to the U.S. from October 13 to 16. 


O’Brien said that he thinks the North Koreans are interested in participating in the Tokyo Olympics. He added that parties could come together before, during or after the Olympics and have some negotiations that lead to some prosperity and better economic times for the North Korean people. It might be too early for the current U.S. administration to promise something about an event next year, when the U.S. will see a new administration. If Trump is reelected, O’Brien’s comments will carry more significance, given his status within the current administration. The remarks suggest that the U.S. may accelerate the process of dialogue with North Korea if Trump wins reelection. 


Starting with his meeting with O’Brien, Suh met other high officials in the U.S., including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. During his stay in the U.S., Suh mentioned President Moon’s proposal to formally declare an end to the Korean War. Moon made the suggestion during his speech for the U.N. General Assembly session last month and again in his speech for the Korea Society on October 8. 


However, the U.S. insists that North Korea’s denuclearization comes first before discussing an end-of-war declaration. The U.S. thinks that North Korea may use such a declaration as an excuse to demand for the dissolution of the South Korea-U.S. alliance and the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea. It seems Suh explained to U.S. officials that Moon’s proposal for an end-of-war declaration would help spur the Korean Peninsula peace process.  


Moon believes that it is essential to officially declare an end to the Korean War to push for the Korean Peninsula peace process and that the declaration will induce North Korea to engage in negotiations in a bolder way. But analysts have pointed out that South Korea and the U.S. may have different opinions on this matter. Experts in the U.S. speculate that Moon’s proposal is not based on the assumption of North Korea’s denuclearization, which the U.S. is clearly opposed to. Suh coordinated this very part during his U.S. visit, saying that Seoul and Washington are on the same page regarding Moon’s proposal. That is, South Korea is in sync with the U.S. on the end-of-war declaration on the precondition of denuclearization. 


O’Brien told Suh that he would visit South Korea. But O’Brien is expected to visit Korea after the U.S. presidential election, and many question the usefulness of his Korea visit, if Trump loses his reelection bid. 


If Trump is not reelected, the current U.S. administration’s North Korea policy may possibly be abandoned. It is said that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, unlike Trump, does not prefer top-down nuclear diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. 


Most analysts predict that Biden, if he wins the election, will adopt the Barack Obama administration’s North Korea policy known as “strategic patience.” As an expert on international diplomacy, Biden has experience in preparing for negotiations with North Korea. The Obama administration achieved no visible outcome when dealing with North Korea. But the Biden administration might be able to produce some results, although the process may be slower than the Trump administration. 


International eyes are on the November 3 presidential election in the U.S. Regardless of the election result, it is important for South Korea to make diplomatic efforts to reactivate the Korean Peninsula peace process and prevent the deadlock in inter-Korean relations as well as in North Korea-U.S. ties from being protracted further. Experts say that South Korea needs to start the peace process for the remainder of the year. 


North Korea may engage in some sort of diplomacy quite actively after the U.S. presidential election. The Seoul government will then have to examine how to use the “end-of-war declaration” card. It is believed that South Korea and the U.S. have fine-tuned more specifics in this issue. In line with the coordinated views, South Korea could try to contact the North even now. Perhaps, Pyongyang may not reject this level of inter-Korean dialogue. While North Korea and the U.S. may prepare for dialogue after the presidential election, the two Koreas could make contact before that. I’m sure President Moon and the Seoul government can do something in the process. 


South Korea is a mediator and also a directly-involved party in the process of breaking the deadlock in North Korea-U.S. relations and reviving momentum for dialogue with North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expressed his wish for inter-Korean cooperation in his speech marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party on October 10. The Seoul government needs to make more specific efforts to move the peace process forward again.

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