Cautious optimism for enhanced inter-Korean ties is growing after Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to hold reunions of separated families as scheduled and stop mutual slander during their high-level talks last week.
The South seeks to use the rare signs of a thaw in the cross-border relations to invigorate its trust-building drive, while Pyongyang appears intent on easing its diplomatic isolation and economic hardships through peace gestures.
Analysts said that for the time being, the two sides might maintain the reconciliatory mood, but it would still be difficult to reconcile their differences over a wide range of bilateral issues including Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
“Pyongyang now aims to forge a ‘peaceful external environment’ and improve the livelihood of its people. To this end, the first step is the normalization of inter-Korean relations, after which it may strive to improve ties with other neighboring states,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University.
“For the time being, the North would maintain its peace gestures. But should things not work out as intended, Pyongyang could take steps to cause tension. As for the South, it also can’t just let the bilateral ties plunge further.”
Under growing pressure to start making some progress in its heretofore dormant “trustpolitik” initiative, Seoul is now struggling to figure out ways to forge a breakthrough in the bilateral relations strained under Pyongyang’s nuclear adventurism.
But the South remains suspicious about the North’s intentions due to the unpredictable nature of the communist regime, which has challenged past bilateral and international agreements.
On Saturday, top Seoul officials in charge of foreign affairs, unification, defense and intelligence held a meeting of the standing committee of the National Security Council to discuss the North’s motives behind last week’s deal to hold family reunions and continue high-level contact.
The details of the meeting were not disclosed, but observers said that the officials’ talks might have focused on why Pyongyang retracted its earlier demand to delay the South Korea-U.S. military drills until after the reunions slated for Feb. 20-25.
The agenda might have also included the possibility of Pyongyang demanding the resumption of the long-stalled tours to Mount Geumgangsan and the lifting of the so-called May 24 measures forbidding governmental economic exchanges and cooperation, the observers said.
Optimists say that in light of the North’s recent acceptance of the South’s demand to separate the humanitarian issue of separated families and politics, the South could take some bold steps to encourage the North to move further toward denuclearization.
During her talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, President Park Geun-hye reiterated that the South was ready to support the economic development of the North should it demonstrate its clear denuclearization commitment.
After the family reunions, Seoul is expected to push for an agenda that includes regularizing the reunions of divided families and establishing a peace park within the Demilitarized Zone bisecting the Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang is likely to demand that Seoul provide food and fertilizers, lift the ban on government-level exchanges, restart the tours to the mountain resort and stop any media reports defaming its paramount leader.
Analysts argue that although Seoul may consider applying more flexibility in its handling of North Korean issues, hammering out mutually agreeable deals on those bilateral issues still remains daunting.
Seoul has long demanded that Pyongyang apologize for the two fatal attacks in 2010 that killed a total of 50 South Koreans, including two civilians, and ensure thorough safety measures for the resumption of the lucrative tour program.
“Seoul is striving harder to achieve its strategic goals through improved ties with the North. But at the same time, Pyongyang may expect the South to offer something big in return, as it now believes that it has made great concessions with the holding of the family reunions,” said Kim Heung-kwang, head of the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity group.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)