[Herald Interview] Despite Olympics detente, Seoul should stay committed to NK’s denuclearization

By Yeo Jun-suk
  • Published : Jan 28, 2018 - 17:46
  • Updated : Jan 28, 2018 - 17:52

Despite an Olympic detente between the two Koreas, the South Korean government should stay committed to the goal of denuclearizing North Korea and translate the thaw in inter-Korean relations into direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington, a Seoul-based scholar said.

Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said the Moon Jae-in administration should create momentum for the opening of US-North Korea dialogue before the US resumes joint military exercises with South Korea after the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

“We have to stick to the principle of denuclearization,” Shin said in an interview with The Korea Herald. “South Korea should play a mediator role to help North Korea and the US discuss Pyongyang’s denuclearization and South Korea-US joint military drills.”

If such efforts fail to bear fruit in time for the resumption of the military exercises -- which are expected to kick off in early April -- North Korea could return to its provocations and a military standoff would continue between the US and the North, Shin said. 

Caption: Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald

With South Korea seeking to use the Olympics as a chance to improve inter-Korean ties and ease cross-border tensions, concerns are rising in the Trump administration that the Olympic detente should not distract from the internationally agreed goal of denuclearizing the North.

In order for South Korea to play a successful meditation role between Pyongyang and Washington, South Korea should get China involved in the process as much as possible because Beijing could withdraw itself from the pressure campaign against North Korea if it feels sidelined, the scholar noted. 

“There is a sense in China that if they rein in North Korea with pressure, the effect takes place in Seoul and Washington,” Shin said. “We should do our best not to make China feel isolated when it comes to presenting a united front against North Korea”

Shin noted that there are jitters in China that the country could bear the brunt of a maximum pressure campaign led by the US and end up losing control over North Korea.

China backed the United Nation’s sanctions adopted after the North conducted its sixth nuclear test in September.

Regarding the reasons for North Korea’s change in its bellicose rhetoric and the resumption of talks, the professor assessed that the diplomatic overture could be attributed to Pyongyang’s economic hardship under the sanctions imposed by the UN and other individual countries.

However, the North’s main strategic calculus lies in justifying its possession of a nuclear arsenal, and Pyongyang will promote such ideas to South Korea and the international community throughout inter-Korean talks and the Olympics.

“North Korea might try to find an economic breakthrough, although it has not been proven yet. But there is one thing for sure. It would say its nuclear weapons are harmless and only used for a peaceful purpose. Therefore, we have to stick to our principle of denuclearization.”