Bracing for some provocationSouth Korea and the United States rejected a threatening message from North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission warning of a holocaust if the two sides don’t cancel their annual joint military exercises. In fiery rhetoric, the North blamed escalating tensions on the South-U.S. joint drills while at the same time suggesting a truce during the Lunar New Year holidays (Jan. 30 to Feb. 1) if the two sides stopped mutual criticisms and provocative military moves.
The South’s Ministry of Unification, which is still awaiting an answer from Pyongyang on its proposal to hold reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War over the Lunar New Year holidays, said North Korea should take responsibility for its past provocations before finding fault with the South’s routine exercises. Washington also reiterated that the drills will go ahead as planned.
In her New Year address, President Park Geun-hye proposed that the two Koreas hold reunions of war-torn families during the Lunar New Year holidays after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made reconciliatory comments toward South Korea during his New Year message. Hopes of thawed relations between the two through the momentum of long-awaited family reunions are now highly uncertain. Pyongyang suggested that Seoul cancel its military drills as a condition to permit the reunions.
We can only question the sincerity behind the Defense Commission’s very mixed message. By making a dovish overture suggesting an end to mutual criticisms, it’s trying to confuse public opinion in South Korea and regain the upper hand in inter-Korean affairs. It may have hoped to interrupt South Korean society’s conservative impetus by suggesting a moratorium on mutual verbal attacks and provocative actions. Liberal opposition politicians have already begun pitching laws to renew humanitarian aid and improve human rights conditions in North Korea through a repackaging of the so-called Sunshine Policy of former liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
Pyongyang may be warning of new military provocations or attempting to stir antigovernment and anti-U.S. sentiment among South Koreans. North Korea demands the cancellation of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, the annual South Korea-U.S. exercises during February and March. The joint military drills are symbolic and a central part of the Seoul-Washington alliance. North Korea has no grounds to protest when it has been engaged in winter military drills since last month.
Pyongyang said it will first refrain from any provocative actions in the seas, sky and on land. In fact, Seoul must be extra vigilant to avert worsened inter-Korean relations and a possible provocation from the North.