News analysis

United on drill delay, but divided in stance towards Pyongyang

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

The two leaders, who spoke on the phone on Thursday night, "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 that 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 Jim 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 is 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.

A Realmeter poll even showed that 76.7 per cent of 504 respondents favour the North's participation in the Winter Games, which will be held in Pyeongchang next month.

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

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 Acting US Ambassador to South Korea Marc Knapper and US Forces Korea commander Vincent Brooks, Dr Kang said President Moon has made it clear that inter-Korean dialogue cannot be separated from joint US-Korea efforts to deal with the North's nuclear and missile threats. She also stressed that Mr Moon had urged her ministry to "work closely with our allies".

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 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.

English daily The Korea Herald urged the government to refrain from making hasty moves or raising expectations too high. "It needs to take a measured and prudent approach, mindful of the North's peace offensive and negotiation tactics," the paper said in an editorial.

Dr Bong Young Shik of 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 is 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2018, with the headline 'United on drill delay, but divided in stance towards Pyongyang'. Print Edition | Subscribe