The ground shifts

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The ground shifts

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is issuing warnings about additional nuclear tests and long-range missile launches one after another since March 4, a day after the United Nations passed a new resolution punishing Pyongyang. The North has also repeatedly fired short-range missiles over the past few weeks. It appears that Pyongyang is sending a message that it won’t surrender to the sanctions or accept an ongoing Korea-U.S. joint military drills.

Following President Park Geun-hye’s strong remarks toward the North, Pyongyang also condemned her using harsh words. Perhaps it was responding to reports about the so-called “beheading” operation, a drill to take out North Korea’s leadership. Recently, the North threatened to turn the Blue House into a sea of fire. Inter-Korean relations are facing serious turmoil.

Amid such tensions, the North suddenly made a proposal to negotiate a peace treaty with the United States in a commentary by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on March 22. Because the North’s foreign minister already made a similar argument in a UN General Assembly speech in October last year, the commentary was nothing new. But this time, it tried to justify the legitimacy of the argument by quoting some U.S. and Chinese experts and foreign media reports.

Why is the North making this argument at this particular point? It probably has objectives domestically and internationally. It proposed the peace treaty and called itself as a “nuclear power,” demonstrating its confidence that “no one can challenge our self-defense capability.” It appeared to be an attempt to highlight Kim Jong-un’s strong leadership ahead of a Workers’ Party convention that will be held for the first time in 36 years. Of course, the North is stressing the importance of a peace treaty as a way of protesting the Korea-U.S. joint military exercises.

But it is necessary to point out that the North’s demand for a peace treaty with the United States is a losing move. In foreign policy, perception of the other’s intention is crucial. In order to achieve a goal, one must make sure that the other party will clearly understand its intention. And the key to this is sincerity.

As the sincerity of the North’s latest argument will not be accepted, it won’t be able to win cooperation from China, which maintains that denuclearization of the North and a peace treaty must be settled together. The North’s argument will also sour sentiments in the South. General Kim Yong-chol, former head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, is now serving as the Workers’ Party secretary in charge of South Korea affairs. With him in charge, concerns are high about the future of inter-Korean relations.

Kim Jong-un must realize that when inter-Korean relations are frozen, an improved relationship with America cannot be expected. He may think all it takes is Washington’s nod, as it has operational control over the South Korean military. But Washington cannot sign a bilateral peace treaty with Pyongyang without involving Seoul. And attempts to do so go against Kim Jong-il’s instructions before his death.

The six-party’s joint statement in Beijing on Oct. 3, 2007 stated that South Korea will participate in the process of changing the Korean War armistice to a peace treaty. The declaration by the two Koreas’ leaders in their summit on the next day also includes this point. Therefore, Pyongyang must not believe that it can sign a peace treaty with Washington without Seoul. China, too, will never support a bilateral peace treaty between the United States and North Korea.

What should be the South’s next move? At the end of last year, the United States had secret contact with the North in New York and discussed denuclearization and a peace negotiation. This is a serious development.

Since 2010, the United States has adamantly said it will join the six-party talks only after the North demonstrates a commitment to denuclearization. But the United States is now shifting to a position that the denuclearization issue can be negotiated within the framework of a peace negotiation. This is a grave change in U.S. policy and Seoul must not ignore it.

Washington and Pyongyang failed to find common ground in their first contact. Seoul must not be mistaken that their talks are over. The North’s latest offer seems to be an attempt to rekindle the idea.

At the same time, there are signs that the sanctions are being poorly implemented by China and Russia. We must be watchful about that. When the sanctions are further weakened, China may move to turn the situation around to push forward simultaneous talks on denuclearization and a peace treaty. Washington could cooperate with Beijing’s initiative as both sides will need to compromise on many other diplomatic issues, too.

The South Korean government, therefore, should prepare for a shift in the situation. Instead of just reiterating that Seoul and Washington are closely consulting on every issue, the South must pay close attention to the possibility that U.S. policy on the North may change. Seoul must improve its relations with Pyongyang. When inter-Korean ties are frozen, Seoul’s voice in Northeast Asian politics becomes muted. There are many political and diplomatic gains from inter-Korean exchanges. President Park Geun-hye may blame the North for frozen ties, but it is up to us to thaw them.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 28, Page 29

*The author, a former minister of unification, is chairman of the Institute for Peace and Cooperation.

Jeong Se-hyun
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