Officials from South Korea have signalled that North Korea is ready and willing to hold inter-Korean talks with Seoul and the United States. This offer came after the North Korean delegation visited South Korean authorities on the final day of the Pyeongchang Olympic Games last week. At face value this could be interpreted as an amicable prelude to peace in the Korean Peninsula. After all, the North agreed to send its first delegation of 150 cheerleaders, support staff and athletes, of which there are two, to the Paralympic Games after an agreement was made early on Tuesday. This follows the visit of Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, whose invitation to President Moon Jae-in to cross the border and have talks with her brother was met with cautious optimism from the international community.
However, there is little to suggest that the global standoff is coming to an end. On the contrary, tensions are as fraught as they’ve ever been. North Korea’s behaviour represents another toxic strategy designed to further inflame tensions in the Korean Peninsula, with Pyongyang using its charm offensive as a carefully orchestrated political ploy to lessen economic sanctions and erode trust in the United States. With an emerging China that is determined to maintain the status quo, incendiary rhetoric from Donald Trump, and the arrival of a controversial North Korean general, there is still little room for optimism.
Unlike Kim Yojong, who offered a human face to the Hermit Kingdom, the leader of the North Korean delegation, Kim Yong-chol, represents the cold, calculating and militaristic ambiguity that characterises North Korea’s ruling elite. Kim Yong-chol is widely considered to be responsible for the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010 and the murder of 46 South Korean servicemen. His arrival has undermined the tranquility that Moon envisioned, after a year of escalating hostility in the Korean Peninsula. This offers a serious setback to Moon, who is keen to establish productive co-operation with the North among a younger generation that is becoming increasingly indifferent to reunification.
The talks that North Korea ostensibly desires from the United States are unlikely to bear fruit, if they happen at all, as Washington will only conduct an official meeting under the framework of nuclear disarmament. Pyongyang will not agree to this; after all, history would suggest Kim Jong Un is only one ICBM stash away from being the next Muammar Gaddafi. The purpose of these talks is not to cooperate, but to soften North Korea’s image in order to prevent further economic sanctions and paint the United States as an unreasonable actor. The fiery rhetoric of Donald Trump helps Pyongyang in this respect, with the President stating last Friday that “If the sanctions don’t work we’ll have to go phase two – and phase two may be a very rough thing, may be very, very unfortunate for the world”.
North Korea’s charm offensive could effectively destabilise the entire Asia-Pacific region by driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Moon, a fervent supporter of reunification, may move away from Washington’s strategy of maximum pressure and take matters into his own hands if his suggestions to “Lower the bar” for talks are ignored. The implications of this could be severe, as by establishing a viable diplomatic channel directly between the North and South, the authority of the US as a mediator would be significantly diminished, and Moon may instead be enticed to drift to a more emboldened Beijing for help. A perilous thought indeed.