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Concern rises over discord between allies as two Koreas begin to talk

With South Korea seeking to thaw frozen ties with North Korea by holding talks before the opening of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, concern is rising over whether the diplomatic overture would hamper the allies’ efforts to present a united front against North Korea’s nuclear program.

The two Koreas reopened a border hotline in order to restore a channel for direct communication after years of cross-border tensions, while US President Donald Trump traded barbs with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un over his threat to use a “nuclear button.”

Seoul and Washington reiterated they are in close contact and vowed to resist any attempts by the North to drive a wedge between the allies. However, politicians and scholars in both countries warned that Seoul’s push for talks would sow dissent in the allies’ approach in dealing with North Korea. 

“While the whole world is seeking to ratchet up sanctions on North Korea, the current administration is doing the opposite,” Rep. Hong Jun-pyo, chairman of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, told The Korea Herald.

“The dialogue would bring disruption to the Korea-US alliance and cause conflicts between the two Koreas. I don’t think such a policy makes sense because it would bring greater danger for the sake of temporary peace.”


US President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in. (Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in. (Yonhap)

Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of United States Forces stationed in South Korea, also expressed caution Thursday against North Korea’s diplomatic overture, saying the allies should “keep their expectation at the appropriate level.”

Since his inauguration in May, President Moon Jae-in has called for dialogue with North Korea, asserting that the resumption of suspended inter-Korean talks would create momentum for a diplomatic breakthrough between the US and North Korea.

In media interviews Thursday, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and presidential special adviser Moon Chung-in deflected concerns that Moon’s initiative would clash with Trump’s “maximized pressure” campaign against North Korea.

Although North Korea’s nuclear program is an international issue that can only be resolved through talks between the US and North Korea, they argued, South Korea can use inter-Korean talks as momentum to foster negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

“We can serve a catalytic role to improve relations between North Korea and the US,” presidential special adviser Moon Chung-in, who is considered a key architect of the Moon administration’s North Korea policy, said in an interview with local radio broadcaster TBS.

Describing North Korea as a global threat in its new National Security Strategy, the Trump administration has pursued a tougher approach, saying there can be no bilateral talks unless there is a sign that North will abandon its nuclear arsenal.

In Washington, there appear to be concerns over whether the Moon administration will distant itself from the efforts by making major concessions during future talks -- such as easing sanctions on North Korea, the suspension of joint military exercises and the reduction of US troops stationed in South Korea.

In an interview with local broadcaster CBS, Foreign Minister Kang said the talks would mainly focus on North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics, but the agenda could include the reunion of separated families and economic cooperation with the North.

“I believe that the US would understand (our position) toward humanitarian issues and the separated families of the two Koreas,” said Kang. “Given that North Korea is under tough sanctions -- whether from the UN Security Council or the US -- we have to discuss what is viable and what is not.”

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday the government does not agree with the idea of “freeze-for-freeze” talks, in which South Korea halts its joint military drills in return for North Korea’s suspension of nuclear and missile tests.

But the Trump administration struck a cautious note, saying while it is not opposed to the idea of talks, dialogue should be limited to the Olympics, not concession on efforts to achieve the complete denuclearization of North Korea.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that “there is nothing new to update” on the Trump administration policy of achieving complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.   

Go Myung-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said South Korea should work in tandem with the US particularly at a time when North Korea’s nuclear issue has become a focus internationally.

“I thinks it is time for us to focus on staging a pressuring campaign with the US and its allies against North Korea. Instead of focusing on a short-term strategy, we have to adopt the Cold-War style of containment and wait for internal changes within North Korea,” he said.

Daniel R. Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Obama administration, noted there are worries in Washington over the Moon administration being “breathless” about the prospect for dialogue.

“It is fine for the South Koreans to take the lead, but if they don’t have the US behind them, they won’t get far with North Korea. … And if the South Koreans are viewed as running off the leash, it will exacerbate tensions within the alliance,” he said in an interview with the New York Times.


Jo He-rim contributed to this article. -- Ed.