North Korea’s peace offensiveLast November, North Korea declared the successful test launch of its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, underscored that its strategic status was enhanced and hurriedly boasted that its nuclear armament was complete.
It might be too early to accept North Korea’s claims at face value, but we cannot help but pay attention to the declaration itself. Pyongyang will most likely adopt a more drastic policy toward Seoul after the declaration. It is its strategy to widen the gap between South Korea and the United States by taking the lead in inter-Korean relations.
In his New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reaffirmed the changes in strategy toward South Korea.
First, North Korea wants to assure that it possesses “reliable war deterrence” that will not allow the United States to start a war. He emphasized that the U.S. mainland is within range of his nuclear missiles, saying, “The nuclear button is on my desk at all times.”
North Korea wants to offset threats from America’s nuclear capability with its own nuclear power in the face of U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands for denuclearization. Pyongyang will demand Seoul break away from the “U.S.-enforced game of denuclearization.”
As the next step, North Korea will encourage South Korea not to participate in U.S.-led pressure and sanctions on North Korea, calling them “reckless moves of nuclear war to invade North Korea.”
Pyongyang will argue that if Seoul does not join sanctions, it will help reduce tension. In a nutshell, North Korea wants the South to keep distance from Washington and engage in inter-Korean cooperation in the name of easing military tension and preparing a peaceful environment. It is a typical strategy to damage our alliance with Uncle Sam.
That is why Kim emphasized the need for improved inter-Korean relations in his New Year’s address. He claimed that South and North Korea must not cling to the past and make “decisive measures” to improve inter-Korean relations. North Korea uses South Korea to urge a reduction or suspension of joint military drills against North Korea and sanctions from the international community.
Kim insists on improving inter-Korean ties by suspending “all nuclear war exercises with foreign forces,” such as joint military drills with the United States, and rejecting “all acts of bringing in America’s nuclear equipment and aggressive forces,” including deployment of strategic U.S. assets on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea expressed a willingness to take necessary measures like sending athletes to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Kim is stirring public opinion in South Korea by saying, “Make this a year of changes” to improve relations, and emphasizing “the Korean people and self-reliance.”
To support a peace offensive for improved inter-Korean relations, North Korea will join the Winter Games. Yet, the prospect is not just rosy because Pyongyang’s offer to improve relations contains serious issues like acknowledging its nuclear weapons and suspending military drills with the United States.
In his 2015 New Year’s address, Kim mentioned working-level and high-level meetings, but when things didn’t go as he wished, it provoked a wooden box mine. If North Korea really wanted to engage in talks to improve ties, it should have resumed high-level and working-level meetings, but it did not.
North Korea is trying to break our military alliance with the United States and stoke internal division with its peace offensive. That strategy includes leaving out the influence of the United States from the peninsula and consequently avoiding pressure and sanctions by emphasizing its touted principle of “self-reliance and the Korean people.” It seeks to buy time to advance its nuclear capability.
Considering all possibilities, the South Korean government must approach Pyongyang’s peace offensive very carefully. With the opening of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics approaching, it is necessary to maintain the frame of sanctions and pressure even as we actively respond to Pyongyang’s demand for improved ties.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 3, Page 29
*The author is director of the Institute of North Korean Studies.