Pyongyang on a double trackNorth Korea snubbed a series of overtures from South Korea, including proposal for high-level talks and a repeated plea for peace from Pope Francis, by threatening a “merciless” strike if Seoul and Washington go ahead with their annual joint military drills. The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise began yesterday and runs until Aug. 29.
In a statement by the official Korean Central News Agency released on Sunday, North Korea’s military warned that it will “mercilessly open a preemptive strike at any time.” While defining the drill as warfare to invade North Korea, it said it will continue with the strongest possible physical attack to turn the South into a “sea of fire and ash.”
The aggressive rhetoric has become somewhat of a ritual ahead of annual Seoul-Washington exercises. Though this time it appears to come in response to President Park Geun-hye’s Aug. 15 Independence Day address, which called for small, meaningful steps toward reconciliation through ventures in environmental, cultural and public aid, beginning with high-level talks to discuss an array of issues like reunions for the families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War. The international community focused in on the two Koreas following Pope Francis’s call for peace and unity on the peninsula soon after he arrived in Seoul.
Pyongyang must stop its saber-rattling immediately and be pragmatic to respond to the proposal for dialogue. Seoul has indicated that it won’t limit the themes up for discussion at the meeting. The two Koreas can expand the talks to political and military issues when they have built sufficient trust through workable exchanges and cooperation. The sanctions on the North following its deadly military provocations in 2010 can only be removed once the two nations are on speaking terms.
Pyongyang is using its well-known two-faced strategy on Seoul. While threatening to turn the South into a “sea of fire,” the same military leadership presented an informal delegation from Seoul a wreath in honor of late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of his death. Kim’s oldest son Park Jie-won, a veteran politician and the architect of Kim’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and former Unification Minister Lim Dong-won, were invited to the Kaesong Industrial Complex for the gift to be relayed.
North Korea often uses the landmark June 15 joint declaration - an outcome of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000 - to divide opinions among liberals and conservatives in the South. While Pyongyang was firing a new type of short-range rocket into the sea off its eastern coast, it also sent a list of its athletes who will participate in the 2014 Asian Games next month. The government should be stern with military provocations, while exercising patience to keep the door open for dialogue.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 18, Page 30