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North Korea’s overture on talks is a test: experts

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korea’s offer to reopen inter-Korean dialogue could be a test to see South Korea’s response and make it accountable for whatever actions Seoul takes in its dealings with Pyongyang later, experts said Sunday amid growing speculation for a thaw in ties.

On Saturday, Kim Yo-jong, who handles propaganda affairs as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, said the regime would be open to talks on conditions, in response to President Moon Jae-in’s call at the UN last week that the two Koreas, alongside the US and China, sign a declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War.

Ending the war has been the cornerstone of Moon’s peace initiative, though neither North Korea nor the US has been as receptive. Pyongyang and Washington have been preoccupied with setting terms to ease the North’s sanctions, which have crippled its economy.

“North Koreans say they are ready for talks if we drop the ‘double standards.’ They mean sanctions, like the ban on missile tests,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

North Korea, which under the UN Security Council resolutions is banned from developing or testing ballistic missiles, has slammed South Korea for its own missile tests that took place two weeks ago, when the two neighbors performed their tests hours apart.

Seoul, like Pyongyang, describes its missile tests as aimed at bolstering self-defense

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, said Kim has a point in calling out South Korea on the missile double standards, noting the latest statement has more to do with testing the Moon administration, when President Moon has less than a year to leave office.

“The founding anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party is two weeks out. That means North Koreans could test missiles again and they want to, in a way, have South Korea boxed in its response,” Cheong said.

Pyongyang could blame Seoul for not honoring its promise to drop double standards if it denounces the missile test. And the North knows well the South cannot suddenly condone the UN-banned test, so either way Pyongyang has an upper hand, according to Cheong.

Cheong noted inter-Korean talks to either sign the end-of-war declaration or arrange a summit would not begin right away, even if Seoul were to drop the “double standards,” because Pyongyang said it would consider reopening them if conditions were met, but stopped short of promising to do so.

And one of the other conditions would also be hard to fulfill, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. He referred to “hostile policy,” which Pyongyang has demanded to be scrapped for a fresh start in frayed inter-Korean relations. 

“‘Hostile policy’ is a term North Koreans use to variously refer to international sanctions,” Easley said, noting the US will not agree to sanctions relief unless North Korea shows progress first on its denuclearization

The US State Department said it supports diplomacy with North Korea, but reiterated the goal is complete denuclearization. Without a shift in Washington’s priority, Seoul will find it difficult to conclude the end-of-war declaration, Easley added.

Cheong said the two Koreas, the US and China need to work out their differences over inking the declaration, adding that the process will be exhausting if it is not productive.

Choi Kang, acting president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said even if the two Koreas were to jump at another Moon-Kim summit without signing a declaration, the meeting would be far short on details, as has been the case since 2018, when Moon and Kim met together for the first time.

“We’re at the eleventh hour of the Moon administration. We’ve seen little progress on denuclearization. There’s little evidence this time will be any different,” Choi said. A senior Cheong Wa Dae official said the government is looking closely at North Korea’s proposal and will carry on working for a thaw in tensions.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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