South Korea proposes talks with North after Pyongyang overtures

Experts say North Korea may be attempting to weaken Seoul’s relationship with US

Visitors look through binoculars during a visit to the Imjingak peace park near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas in the border city of Paju on January 1st, 2018. Photograph: Getty Images

Visitors look through binoculars during a visit to the Imjingak peace park near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas in the border city of Paju on January 1st, 2018. Photograph: Getty Images

 

South Korea has responded to an olive branch from Kim Jong-on by proposing talks next week to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics and other measures to improve ties.

The offer came a day after the North Korean leader shifted his rhetoric regarding the South, saying he was “open to dialogue” to ease tensions on the peninsula. He also vowed to expand the reclusive regime’s nuclear programme and urged Washington to admit it as a nuclear power.

Some analysts see Mr Kim’s overture as an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, which has been trying to isolate Pyongyang further through international sanctions.

Cho Myoung-gyon, Seoul’s unification minister in charge of inter-Korean relations, on Tuesday proposed a meeting between high-ranking government officials of the two nations at the border village of Panmunjom. Scheduled for January 9th, it would be the first official meeting between the two Koreas since 2015.

“We expect to sit down with North Korea face-to-face and frankly discuss mutual interests aimed at better inter-Korean relations,” said Mr Cho. “We look forward to Pyongyang’s positive reaction to this.”

Donald Trump responded equivocally via Twitter. “Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!” the US president said in a tweet in which he referred to Mr Kim by the pejorative nickname he coined last year.

Mr Trump has regularly touted the possibility of military action against Pyongyang despite the risks of triggering nuclear war or endangering the lives of Americans and other allies in the region.

He appeared to back Rex Tillerson, his chief diplomat, in his policy of sustained pressure, saying sanctions and other measures “are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea” and citing a spate of defections by soldiers to South Korea.

Winter Olympics

Seoul’s proposal came after Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, ordered his staff to act swiftly on Mr Kim’s offer of dialogue. Mr Kim also expressed interest in sending a delegation to the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month.

Mr Moon, who took power last May, proposed military talks with North Korea last year that were rebuffed by Pyongyang.

“Improving inter-Korean relations and resolving the North Korean nuclear issue are not separate from each other,” Mr Moon said, adding that South Korea would consult its allies ahead of any talks.

Bong Young-shik, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University, said Pyongyang’s offer of dialogue was a shift in tactics.

“[North Korea] used to set aside Seoul and wanted to deal with Washington directly. Now, by talking to Seoul instead, it is hoping that this will provide a temporary breathing space even for a few months from the tough economic sanctions,” Mr Bong said.

“North Korea is testing the waters to see if there is any fissure between Seoul and Washington as its ultimate goal is the breakdown of the US-Korea security alliance,” he said. “It is testing whether Moon is willing to terminate economic sanctions imposed by his conservative predecessors.”

Mr Bong expects the proposed talks to be confined to the Winter Olympics as Pyongyang is unlikely to discuss de-nuclearisation with Seoul.

Pyongyang is under intensifying pressure from the international community after firing three intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducting its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last year.

Last month, the UN imposed its strongest sanctions on North Korea, further squeezing oil supplies to the impoverished state in a move that Pyongyang called an “act of war”.

As Pyongyang starts to feel the pinch, the Kim regime is stepping up its hunt for cash, with North Korean hackers hijacking computers to mine digital currencies.

A North Korean hacking unit called Andariel seized a South Korean company server last summer to mine about 70 Monero coins worth about $25,000 now, according to the South Korean state-run Financial Security Institute. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018