North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has extended a hand for talks with South Korea, but Korea watchers are wary of the North’s intentions.
North Korea shocked the world Monday, not with a wild threat, but with an offer to engage the South in dialogue. Two days later, the North and South re-opened a dormant hotline for cross-border calls, the first in nearly two years. South Korea has responded positively, but many observers suspect Seoul may be walking into a trap.
Kim made similar friendly overtures in last year’s New Year’s address, telling Seoul that “positive measures should be taken to improve inter-Korean relations, avoid acute military confrontation, and remove the danger of war between the North and the South.” The North then proceeded to raise regional tensions through repeated military provocations, including both ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests.
“There is reason to be somewhat suspicious of North Korea,” Lisa Collins, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “North Korea is always looking to maximize its national interests in any way that it can.”
She explained that there are several possible reasons behind North Korea’s sudden interest in dialogue. One, the rogue state may attempt to use “this opportunity as a way to weaken the U.S.-South Korean alliance.” Two, the North may “finally be at the point where it wants to improve relations with South Korea,” and it may even want to use talks with the South as “a springboard to enter into talks with the U.S.” Three, the North may be looking to secure concessions from the South, which could include “more aid, canceling military exercises, and encouraging the U.S. to withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula.”
That the North will demand certain concessions is very likely given that Kim stressed that the South “should discontinue all the nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces” and “refrain from any acts of bringing in nuclear armaments and aggressive forces from the United States” in his speech Monday.
In his New Year’s address, the young despot expressed an interest in sending a North Korean team to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, thus appealing to the desires of the liberal South Korean government.
“[South Korean President Moon Jae-in] wants to host a peaceful 2018 Winter Olympic games, as well as open direct dialogue with his neighbor,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent op-ed. These interests make the South susceptible to a North Korean ploy.
“The regime is looking for the weakest link by which to break the maximum pressure campaign, and it seems to judge, not irrationally, that the weakest link is the South Korean government” given its predisposition to using engagement to peacefully resolve this crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, an Asian security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told TheDCNF recently.
“This is just like a regular exercise in garden variety burglary,” he explained. “This is like a hotel burglar testing every door to see what opens. The door that looks the most promising to the North Korean regime is the blue house in Seoul, so the regime is testing and probing.”
“They want to see how far they can get,” he remarked.
North Korea’s behavior is certainly not out of character and is even common practice for the rogue state, according to another expert.
“I think that what we are seeing is consistent with past tactical shifts in North Korean politics,” Dean Cheng, a research fellow on East Asian political and security affairs, explained to TheDCNF. “We often see periods of mild reconciliation followed by periods of aggressive action.”
He stressed that North Korea’s long-term intentions — specifically reunifying the Korean Peninsula on North Korea’s terms — never change. North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, saber rattling, and occasional overtures for peace are “part of this larger effort to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, make the American support for South Korea appear less credible, and to press South Korea into modestly conciliatory gestures.”
When Kim delivered his New Year’s address, not only did he announce that the North is “open to dialogue” with the South, but he also order the mass production and rapid deployment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. The Moon administration has overlooked this order, focusing most of its attention on the opportunity for talks.
“Everyone always sees what they want to see,” Cheng pointed out. “If you really want to believe that we can cut a deal with North Korea,” as some of the South Korean president’s liberal predecessors did, “then you are going to look for those glimmers of hope. I don’t see much cause for optimism, but I am not Moon Jae-in.”
“As [the position of the South Korean government] is an ideological viewpoint, which is to say it is faith based, it is impervious to empirical reality,” Eberstadt explained to TheDCNF, adding, “We are seeing the triumph of hope over experience in dealing with the North Koreans.”
Within the U.S. government, as well as the armed services, views of the talks between North and South Korea are noticeably varied.
While President Donald Trump initially said news of talks could be good or bad, he solidified his position on the matter Thursday, asserting that “talks are a good thing!” The Department of State expressed skepticism earlier, with department spokeswoman Heather Nauert stating, “We are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in sitting down and having talks.”
Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, argued Thursday that the U.S. and its allies should not have any illusions about North Korea’s peaceful overture. “We can be generally pleased by the recent overtures that happened. But, we must keep our expectations at the appropriate level,” he said, adding that North Korea may presently be trying to divide the countries united against it. “We can not ignore that reality.”