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[Herald Interview] Trump, Moon both deserve credit for bringing NK to inter-Korean talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump deserve credit for fostering a thaw between the two Koreas, a Seoul-based security scholar said, suggesting the allies’ pressure campaign against North Korea proved effective in changing Pyongyang’s attitude.

Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the thaw in inter-Korean relations could put Trump in a better position in pressuring North Korea, as South Korea also takes a role in staging the pressure campaign.

“It’s like Trump is playing a Mafia boss who has two subordinates,” Go said in an interview with The Korea Herald, referring to South and North Korea.  “If he believes South Korea has gone too far on inter-Korean cooperation and done little on denuclearization, he could ... punish the South.”

“It is fair to say that Trump’s coercive policy against North Korea is taking effect, although it is mostly about praising himself. Regardless, it has proved to be strategically correct in bringing changes to North Korea’s attitude.”

Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies
Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Earlier this month, Trump tweeted that inter-Korean talks were taking place because he was “firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North.” In response, President Moon gave Trump “huge credit” in a nationally televised press conference on Jan 10.

The scholar said President Moon will eventually be in the “driver’s seat” in orchestrating efforts to resolve North Korea’s nuclear program, but challenges loom large as Seoul is forced to cater both to Washington and Pyongyang at the same time.

The engagement-seeking president would likely face tough challenges in maintaining a delicate balancing act between the US and North Korea, Go said, as he would be hard-pressed to achieve the two unlikely goals simultaneously: improving cross-border ties and making progress on North Korea’s denuclearization.

“It’s like what China had done before,” the scholar said, referring to the meditation role that China had played during the previous six-party talks that failed to induce North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. 

The scholar suggested that North Korea coming to the talks is largely aimed at breaking free of the mounting pressure imposed by economic sanctions, countering conventional wisdom that the North’s overture is designed to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US.

What North Korea wants from the Olympic detente, Go said, is to buy time until it perfects the technology to become a full-fledged nuclear power. North Korea is capable of sending missiles to the US mainland, but whether it has the technology to protect the warhead during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere remains unclear.

“I don’t think North Korea will stick to inter-Korean talks. It has a bigger strategic purpose,” Go said. “Now it is up to North Korea. If it shows hints of denuclearization -- even the slightest one -- the mood for a thaw in inter-Korean relations will continue.”


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