News analysis

Talks stop short of signalling change in nuclear stance

Hopes for reconciliation up, but experts warn North is trying to divide Seoul and Washington

The two Koreas took a step forward in improving ties after resuming talks - over the Winter Olympics - with both sides displaying eagerness and sincerity for positive results.

North Korea confirmed its participation in the Olympics, while the South indicated it would consider lifting some sanctions temporarily to allow the North's delegation to travel to the alpine county of Pyeongchang, where the Games will be held next month.

Both sides even agreed to hold military talks in the future to ease border tensions, according to a joint statement, although they could not come to an agreement on South Korea's proposal to hold a reunion for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Analysts said the talks - the first in two years - were productive, but stopped short of signalling a change in North Korea's nuclear stance, or its willingness to return to the negotiating table for talks to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

The regime, bent on developing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the US mainland, declared its nuclear programme complete after firing its biggest and most powerful ICBM on Nov 29 last year.

Despite its peace offensive towards South Korea, the North remains aggressive towards its sworn enemy, the US - evident in leader Kim Jong Un's warning of a "nuclear button" on his desk.

Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies told The Straits Times that North Korea will need to "sweeten the deal" by at least declaring a moratorium on testing in order for broader talks with the United States to take place.

"The Trump administration can justify giving the green light to negotiations with this abhorrent regime as long as the regime promises not to engage in another provocation during negotiations. Then Mr Trump could say: "See, North Korea has succumbed to pressure, I am an excellent negotiator."

Members of conservative groups, who are against holding inter-Korean talks without the North abandoning its nuclear programme, at a rally in Seoul yesterday.
Members of conservative groups, who are against holding inter-Korean talks without the North abandoning its nuclear programme, at a rally in Seoul yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Dr Graham Ong-Webb, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said North Korea can afford to defer testing as it is nearing the end of its nuclear programme, lacking just tests in re-entry technology.

He noted that if the regime makes good on its Olympic participation, it would have to suspend testing from now until mid-March, when the Paralympics end.

"Testing will become a non-negotiable deal-breaker in 2018. If Pyongyang can continue its moratorium on testing for a significant part of 2018, the ball will be in Washington's court to invest in dialogue," he told ST.

The talks yesterday were a culmination of friendly gestures from Pyongyang since Mr Kim extended a New Year's Day overture to send a delegation to the Games.

The move has fuelled hopes for reconciliation, even though experts warn it is a ploy by the North to drive a wedge between South Korea and its main security ally, the US.

Dr Bong said North Korea's turnaround is a sign that the regime is being squeezed hard by the toughened economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. He noted that the North Korean leadership has a history of agreeing to inter-Korean dialogue when facing "extremely challenging situations".

"They only turn to South Korea when they are desperate, like a bad relative who never sends Christmas cards, but when he runs out of money, he suddenly claims he is your uncle."

Some experts warned that the North may steal the limelight at Pyeongchang and take credit for a successful Olympics, but Dr Go Myong Hyun of The Asan Institute for Policy Studies think-tank said the pro-rapprochement South Korean government is not opposed to North Korea "taking advantage of this opportunity to have a coming-out party".

"South Korea will be more than happy to set the stage for that," he told ST.

Dr Ong-Webb, however, cautioned that South Korea has to be careful what it wished for.

"Joint parade marches, cheerleading teams and performance troupes are great. The risk is in competitive events. Unfairly or not, anything that puts North Korea in a weaker light will be put squarely on Seoul as host and kin."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'Talks stop short of signalling change in nuclear stance'. Print Edition | Subscribe