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N. Korea Sends Dialogue Signals to U.S., Pressures S. Korea



The recent series of missile launches by North Korea are plunging Seoul-Pyongyang relations into tension yet again. The North is ramping up its harsh rhetoric against South Korea, while sending dialogue signals to the U.S. 

Today, we’ll discuss North Korea’s true intentions behind its traditional strategy of making overtures to the U.S. while freezing out South Korea with Oh Gyeong-seop, a researcher from the Korea Institute for National Unification. 

U.S. President Donald Trump talked about a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump said in the letter that Kim wanted to resume denuclearization talks once the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise ends. 

But North Korea has continued to deal with South Korea by the way of provocations and threats, test-firing short-range missiles on seven occasions since May fourth. In a recent statement by Kwon Jong-gun(권정근), director of U.S. Affairs at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, Pyongyang has made it clear that the talks, even if held, would strictly be between North Korea and the U.S., and not between the North and the South. Kwon lashed out at Seoul for criticizing Pyongyang’s missile launches. North Korea’s recent move is seen as its typical strategy of engaging in talks directly with the U.S. while pressuring and threatening South Korea. 

Since the breakdown of the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi in February, Pyongyang has hinted at the possibility of taking a “new path,” instead of engaging in dialogue with the U.S. 

North Korea has actually held a series of summit talks with China and Russia. Using this strategy, the North succeeded in drawing the U.S. back to the negotiation table. 

Cross-border relations between South and North Korea, meanwhile, have been deadlocked. A weekly meeting of their chief officers at the Gaeseong liaison office has long been suspended, and Pyongyang has made no response to Seoul’s proposals to discuss bilateral issues. South Korea has offered rice aid for North Korea through the U.N. World Food Program, but the North has shown a negative response to the offer. 

Pyongyang has put great pressure on Seoul since the collapse of the Hanoi summit, probably because it believes that its southern neighbor has become less useful in negotiations with the U.S. 

North Korea has three purposes in mind. First, it wants to create a rift in the South Korea-U.S. alliance and weaken the security cooperation of the allies. North Korea is vehemently opposed to the allies’ joint military exercise and has requested the South to stop it, while ignoring and denouncing Seoul’s dialogue proposals. Second, it is indirectly urging South Korea to stay away from the security alliance with the U.S. and side with North Korea instead. Third, it hopes to resume and expand economic cooperation with South Korea in a bid to ease international sanctions. Pyongyang is apparently telling Seoul that it cannot engage in inter-Korean dialogue before South Korea accepts these requests. 

North Korea’s pressure on the South can be interpreted in various ways. The North may have concluded that it will be better to have direct talks with the U.S. Also, by pressuring South Korea, the North is appeasing the military’s complaints and driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington at the same time. North Korea is probably expressing its discontent via the stalemate in economic cooperation with the South. The question is how long Pyongyang will maintain its hard-line stance toward Seoul. 

North Korea’s continuous pressure on the South will inevitably deal a blow to the South Korean government’s plan to improve inter-Korean ties by moving North Korea-U.S. relations forward. If North Korea continues to remain silent about Seoul’s proposals and only pours harsh words onto the South, inter-Korean dialogue might be locked at a standstill. Unfortunately, I don’t see any particular breakthrough for now. The government needs to wait for North Korea-U.S. talks to resume and monitor how the negotiations may evolve. 

The South Korean government, which has been working hard to create a mood for inter-Korean reconciliation, has refrained from criticizing North Korea’s strident rhetoric against Seoul. Regarding the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s recent statement, an official at the presidential office in Seoul said that Pyongyang is trying to express its hope to hold working-level nuclear negotiations with Washington after the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise ends on August 20th. So, the end of the allies’ command post training is likely to influence denuclearization talks between North Korea and the U.S. The result of the working-level talks may determine the future of inter-Korean relations. 

Trump and Kim agreed to resume working-level talks within two to three weeks during their surprise encounter at the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom on June 30th. But the talks have yet to take place, as South Korea and the U.S. kicked off their joint military exercise earlier this month. While the exercise is underway, Kim expressed his hope to resume working-level talks in his letter to Trump. Earlier, the North Korean leader said that he would wait until the year ends to see if there is any change in Washington’s attitude towards the nuclear issue. But now, the North seems to be rather impatient and has a strong desire to resume dialogue with the U.S. 

Since North Korea has expressed hope to resume negotiations with the U.S., bilateral working-level talks may reconvene as early as the end of this month, after the South Korea-U.S. military exercise ends. 

If North Korea-U.S. working-level negotiations proceed smoothly and produce some sort of agreement, the two sides may hold high-level talks and even have another summit between Kim and Trump within the year. During the five remaining months until the year’s end, North Korea will work hard to reach a compromise at working-level talks with the U.S. by narrowing their differences over the scope and terms of its denuclearization. But if the two sides fail to agree, another North Korea-U.S. summit will not be held this year. 

For now, we need to wait and see for any working-level contact between the two countries. 

If North Korea and the U.S. hold working-level nuclear talks later this month and if they somehow produce a meaningful outcome, this positive development may lead to high-level talks and a third bilateral summit. But to make this a reality, working-level negotiations must be held first. Then we’ll have to closely monitor how relations between South and North Korea unfold.

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