Korea: A useful first step

The latest talks are a step, but only the first, on a long and difficult road

 

The resumption of inter-Korean talks this week is an encouraging sign. After a year of escalating tensions on the peninsula, culminating in Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test and the imposition of harsher international sanctions, the talks provide an opportunity to take some heat out of a dangerously volatile standoff. At the first meeting between the two sides in two years, the North said it would attend the Winter Olympics, which the South will host next month, and both sides agreed to revive military consultations to avoid accidental conflict.

The timing suits both sides. Some analysts believe South Korea’s eagerness for talks is in part driven by concern that the North could attempt to disrupt the Olympics through terrorism or cyber attacks. The North, meanwhile, can portray the talks as its response to the temporary suspension of US-South Korean military drills.

Perhaps conscious that some have interpreted Kim Jong-un’s overture as an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, Seoul has been at pains to stress Washington’s endorsement of the process. In a sop to Donald Trump, who has exchanged bellicose and juvenile public insults with the North Korean dictator, South Korean president Moon Jae-in gave Trump credit for bringing the talks about. The US president in turn reversed his own position by saying he was open to meeting Kim, albeit “under the right circumstances.” Coming less than a week after the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump was contemplating a military strike against North Korea, that was a welcome shift.

Do the talks light a path to denuclearisation? Almost certainly not. Kim Jong-un has ruled out nuclear discussions, and Pyongyang’s weapons programme is now so far advanced that a freeze looks a more realistic medium-term aim. The latest development follows a familiar pattern on the peninsula, where a crisis and rising fears of conflict cause inter-Korean ties to be cut before talks resume and the North looks for aid in exchange for minimalist gestures. The latest talks are a step, but only the first, on a long and difficult road.

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