This story is being published by POLITICO as part of a content partnership with the South China Morning Post. It first appearedon scmp.com on March 18, 2019.
As talks between Washington and Pyongyang on denuclearization appear to have stalled after last month’s summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended without agreement, South Korea is looking for ways to end the impasse.
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A statement issued by Seoul’s presidential Blue House on Monday said the time was now right for the two Koreas to hold further talks — building upon President Moon Jae-in’s policy of rapprochement which saw him meet Kim three times last year.
“We’re in a deep agony over how to take advantage of this baton that has been handed over to us,” said the statement, attributed to a high-ranking official.
“We agree with the view that no deal is better than a bad deal … However, in reality, it is difficult to achieve complete denuclearization at one stroke. I think we need to reconsider the so-called all or nothing strategy.”
After last month’s summit in Hanoi was cut short by several hours, Trump told reporters that Pyongyang had wanted “sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that … we had to walk away from it.”
North Korea contradicted this claim, with the country’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho later saying Pyongyang had made “realistic” proposals in return for a “partial lifting of sanctions”. In the days and weeks since, the North has threatened to suspend all channels of communication with Washington and even restart its missile tests.
To end the impasse, South Korea wants to get the North to “agree with a broad road map aimed to achieve the overarching goal of denuclearization,” according to the Blue House statement.
“On the basis of that, we should make further efforts to turn a small deal into a deal that is good enough. In order to achieve meaningful progress, we need one or two early harvests for mutual trust-building to move on toward the final goal.“
Yoon Sung-suk, a professor of political science at Chonnam University, said there were “mounting fears” among many in the South that the breakdown in talks would affect efforts at reconciliation with the North.
“President Moon has put everything on the success of diplomacy with the North, as he faces falling approval ratings amid the sluggish economy. For him, this is a high stakes political gamble”, Yoon said.
During Moon’s meetings with Kim last year, the two signed an agreement to “bring forward the future of co-prosperity and unification” and “encourage more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels.”
Both sides subsequently took steps to defuse tensions by demolishing watchtowers near the demilitarized zone that separates them and starting work on cross-border railways and roads. But without substantive progress in nuclear negotiations and on sanctions relief, these inter-Korean projects will likely go nowhere.Koh yu-hwan, a professor of political science at Dongguk University, said Seoul was trying to keep diplomacy alive “even if the prospect of the North and the U.S. reaching a compromise in the foreseeable future does not look bright”.
“Seoul’s idea is that the North and the U.S. reach a compromise in which Pyongyang implements a complete denuclearization phased in a couple of steps rather than at one stroke,” he said.
In an interview on Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton criticised the North Korean side for not being “willing to do what they needed to do” to reach a deal, while also mooting the possibility of China being involved in future talks.“The idea that there’s a role for China in the negotiations is something that we’d be willing to consider if we could see some movement on North Korea’s part,” he said in the interview with New York radio station AM 970.
“What they could do more of is apply more pressure on North Korea. They could apply the U.N. sanctions more tightly.”