South Korea Proposes Talks with North Despite Pyongyang’s Skepticism

Photo: South Korean Presidential Blue House/Getty

South Korea has extended an offer for military and humanitarian talks with North Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in ran on a platform of engagement with the North and proposed talks with Pyongyang several times as a candidate and as president.

The talks would be the first high-level dialogue between North and South since 2014 and would attempt to halt “all hostile activities that raise military tension,” according to South Korean Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk. The talks could also reestablish meetings between families separated by the Korean War, a good will gesture organized in previous talks.

The Trump Administration has grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress on deterring North Korea’s weapons programs—an issue it views as a national security priority—and has stressed that all diplomatic, economic, and military options are on the table.

While Trump once quipped he would be open to speaking with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over a hamburger, he later stressed that this could only occur if the conditions were right. The administration’s stance has since remained unchanged.  In a statement to the New York Times,  the National Security Council wrote, “The United States remains open to credible talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume.”

Though the administration has not openly opposed Moon’s decision, some experts believe the White House in fact disapproves of dialogue without preconditions. Sung-yoon Lee, a professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School, told The Cipher Brief, “There’s been no penalty [against North Korea], even rhetorical condemnation, coming out of President Moon. I would think the Trump Administration officials are keeping tabs on all these developments and are likely to take the view that President Moon is perhaps not the most reliable ally at this point.”

North Korea has only responded to the offer for talks through the state-sponsored newspaper Rodong Shinmun, calling it “riddled with sophistries like sleep talking, which only pose hurdles rather than helping improve North-South relations,” and saying, “The overall content, enumerated under the name of peace, carries confrontational intentions to quash its neighbor while relying on foreign forces.”

Though the North Korean response appears harsh, South Korean officials remain optimistic that dialogue without preconditions is an enticing offer. However, the benefits of previous talks have been short-lived, and if the North does agree, this time might not be any different.

July 27th will mark the 64th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement signed in 1953 to end the Korean War, but there has never been a peace treaty signed by the parties.

Will Edwards is an Asia-Pacific and defense analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.