As South Korea, US discuss 'creative' ways to engage with Pyongyang, does Moon have a shot at ending the Korean war?

PHOTO: Reuters

South Korea ’s foreign minister and his US counterpart have discussed “creative” ways to engage with North Korea , Seoul’s foreign ministry said on Thursday (Sept 23), as the South’s President Moon Jae-in repeated calls for a declaration to officially end the Korean war.

Foreign minister Chung Eui-yong and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York amid a renewed focus on Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons activities .

The North carried out a series of missile launches earlier this month, while the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Monday said the hermit state’s nuclear development was going “full steam ahead” after the recent resumption of activity at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor.

The meeting came shortly after Chung and Blinken held three-way talks with Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi about North Korea and other issues of concern, including climate change .

Denuclearisation talks with Pyongyang have stalled since the collapse of the second summit between former United States president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019.

Leif-Eric Easley, an international relations professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said while the three sides were on the same page about taking a diplomatic approach towards the North, they also had different priorities.

“In his final months in office, President Moon wants to burnish the legacy of his ‘peace first’ policy,” Easley said. “Japan prefers a tougher line on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes, but is currently in the midst of a leadership transition. The Biden administration favours dialogue for denuclearisation but has a long list of other priorities.”

Easley said effective cooperation would need to be based “on strategic coordination rather than a coincidence of political interests”.

Lim Jae-cheon, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, said Washington and Tokyo would likely have a higher bar than Seoul for any deal even if talks began with no preconditions.

“It depends on North Korea’s moves, but I think that North Korea doesn’t seem to be interested in denuclearisation talks, as long as the US and Japan aim for complete denuclearisation of the North,” he said.

Pyongyang has shunned repeated offers for dialogue from President Joe Biden ’s government and has spurned Moon’s efforts to rekindle his signature inter-Korean reconciliation agenda, which has made little headway since three summits involving the North and South in 2018.

Last month, Seoul and Washington’s top nuclear envoys discussed the possibility of providing humanitarian aid to the North, which is facing an economic crisis spurred by the collapse of cross-border trade with China during the pandemic.

Sung Kim, Biden’s special representative for North Korea, said Washington was open to assisting regardless of progress on denuclearisation and would meet with North Korean officials “anywhere, any time.”

Earlier this month, Unicef revealed that Pyongyang had rejected nearly 3 million doses of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine, asking that the jabs be redirected elsewhere “in view of the limited global supply of Covid-19 vaccines and recurrent surge in some countries”. The North, which promotes an ideology of self-reliance known as juche , has previously accused the US of using aid for “sinister” purposes.

The top South Korean and American diplomats’ talks came as Moon reiterated the call he made at the UN General Assembly earlier this week for a formal end to the 1950-1953 Korean war. Fighting ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically in a state of war.

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“The end of war declaration will bring new hope and courage beyond the Korean peninsula, for all those that want peace,” Moon told a Thursday ceremony held to mark the transfer of wartime remains at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.

Kim Jong-ha, a security analyst at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea, said Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo had few options for dealing with the North besides tougher economic sanctions .

“When it comes to North Korea’s denuclearisation, the US and Japan are not interested in signing a peace agreement without complete denuclearisation,” Kim said. “On the other hand, President Moon Jae-in believes a peace agreement is possible without complete denuclearisation. So the US, Japan, and South Korea are dreaming differently.”

He said a peace deal was problematic as it did not automatically imply that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons. “We can sign a peace agreement after denuclearising North Korea. Moon Jae-in’s fanatical obsession with a peace agreement is frankly difficult to understand.”

Pyongyang has carried out six nuclear tests and numerous missile launches since 2006 despite international sanctions and censure, offers of aid, and diplomatic overtures.

While the full extent of the North’s capabilities are unknown, a UN Security Council report last year found that numerous countries believed Pyongyang was capable of producing miniaturised nuclear warheads to fit on ballistic missiles.

Last month, the IAEA said satellite imagery indicated the North had restarted its plutonium-producing reactor at the Yongbyon complex in the north of the country, in a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.