News analysis

Moon-Trump phone call reassuring but differences remain over North Korea

SEOUL - As concern grew over how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year overture has divided allies South Korea and the United States, US President Donald Trump has taken the reassuring step of agreeing with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae In to postpone joint military drills during the upcoming Winter Olympics.

The two leaders, who spoke on the phone on Thursday night (Jan 4), "agreed to de-conflict the Olympics and our military exercises so that United States and Republic of Korea forces can focus on ensuring the security of the Games", said the White House.

But, it seems that differences remain in their approach towards the North.

The US remains hawkish - evident in the White House statement that emphasised the two leaders "agreed to continue the campaign of maximum pressure against North Korea and to not repeat mistakes of the past".

US Defence Secretary James Mattis has also downplayed the delay in joint military exercises, saying it was due to logistical concerns and would be resumed after the Winter Games. At a Pentagon briefing, he also cautioned against reading too much into North Korea's overture "because we don't know if it's a genuine olive branch".

The more optimistic South Korean government, however, has been swift to embrace Mr Kim's offer to hold talks on sending a delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics.

The restoration of inter-Korea communication on Wednesday has fuelled hopes of reconciliation, and both sides agreed on Friday to hold high-level talks next Tuesday to discuss Pyongyang's Winter Olympics participation, as well as how to improve ties.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha has also sought to ease growing concern that Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, and that her government's rapprochement moves contradict the US policy of maximum pressure.

In a meeting on Thursday with US acting ambassador to South Korea Marc Knapper and US Forces Korea commander Vincent Brooks, Dr Kang said President Moon has "made it clear" that inter-Korea dialogue cannot be separated from joint US-Korea efforts to deal with the North's nuclear and missile threats.

She also stressed that President Moon had urged the Foreign Ministry to "work closely with our allies".

General Brooks, speaking at a separate lecture on Thursday, said many people seemed pleased by Pyongyang's overture. A Realmeter poll shows 76.7 per cent of 504 South Korean respondents favour the North's participation in the Winter Games, which will be held in Pyeongchang next month.

But Gen Brooks warned against having too high expectations and said North Korea was trying to create friction among US, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. All five nations are involved in the suspended six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear arsenal, which has expanded in recent years.

 

Gen Brooks also stressed the importance of the US and South Korea maintaining an "ironclad and razor sharp" alliance and combat readiness, in case inter-Korea talks turn sour.

Experts and the media have also expressed concern that the South Korean government would become a pawn in a political game orchestrated by the North.

South Korea's largest newspaper Chosun Ilbo warned in an editorial on Thursday that "Seoul must not fall for North Korea's ruse", adding that Mr Kim's overture was meant to "sow a rift among the allies" and buy time to complete the regime's nuclear programme.

Opposition leaders have also urged the Moon administration to tread carefully. Minor Bareun Party leader Yoo Seong Min voiced concern of "serious gaps" between Seoul and Washington, pointing to how US national security adviser H.R. McMaster told state-funded broadcaster Voice of America that "anybody who thought (Mr Kim's) speech was reassuring was drinking too much champagne over the holidays".

Dr Bong Young Shik, from Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies, told The Straits Times that the Moon administration readily accepted Pyongyang's peace offensive to stop the escalation of tensions and avoid military conflict on the Korean peninsula.

"Even though the South Korean government knows it's a trap laid by Kim Jong Un, they have to enter the trap in order to create an atmosphere conducive to diplomatic communication and dialogue with Pyongyang," he said.