North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivered a double-edged New Year message to South Korea and the international community, which seek a peaceful resolution of its nuclear threats through sanctions and pressure.
South Korea needs to make a measured response focused on thawing frozen inter-Korean relations and fostering an atmosphere for dialogue toward the denuclearization of the North.
The South also must not stretch the meaning of his offer nor lower its guard to prevent it from playing into the North’s hands.
Kim said he is willing to hold inter-Korean dialogue to discuss his country’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea in February. The North’s Korean Central Television on Monday aired his New Year’s speech, in which he called for thawing inter-Korean relations. Kim said that he hopes for the South’s successful hosting of the sporting event, adding a meeting between the two Korea’s officials is possible to make the North’s participation happen.
Considering the Moon Jae-in administration has eagerly waited for Pyongyang’s reply to its offer to participate in the Olympics, his New Year message is encouraging. Cheong Wa Dae welcomed the reply. It needs to push for a meeting as soon as possible. South Korea will be able to ensure the safety of the PyeongChang Olympics, as the North is likely to refrain from provoking the international community with nuclear or missile tests while its delegation participates in the games. Seoul needs to come up with ideas to take advantage of this overture that make progress toward the goal of fostering an atmosphere for further dialogue.
But the South should do so with caution. It is questionable whether Kim made the overture to send a delegation to the Olympics out of pure intentions.
“When it comes to North-South relations, we should lower the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula to create a peaceful environment,” Kim said in the address.
This sounds like the usual rhetoric aimed at getting South Korea and its allies off guard. Seoul must not forget Pyongyang has persistently sought to drive a wedge in the US-Korea alliance. The overture for dispatch of an Olympic delegation about a month away from the opening of the Olympics can be an attempt to ease ever strengthening pressure on Pyongyang over its near-complete nuclear and missile programs.
South Korea and its allies need to pay attention to Kim’s warning to the United States in the address that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk for use if North Korea is threatened. He seems to have given such warning with obvious intentions, including scaring the US into giving up a possible pre-emptive strike. Undoubtedly, the ultimate reason why he clings to nukes and missiles is to break the alliance against the North and prevent US military intervention in Korea by threatening nuclear retaliation.
Kim made both a peace offer and a peace offensive in his New Year address. What is worrying is that the Moon administration will stretch the meaning of the former while downplaying the latter.
A government panel unveiled its findings last Thursday after reviewing North Korea policies of the past governments. Its report raised issue with the closure of an industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea, and South Korea’s sanctions on the North, both actions taken under the past governments. The committee suggested the industrial park should be reopened when conditions are ripe and blamed the sanctions for damaging the basis for inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation.
During his campaign, Moon pledged to reopen the industrial park in a bid to improve inter-Korean ties, and has had high expectations on the Olympics as a chance for dialogue with the North. Moon, however, must not make the error of blowing Kim’s offer to send a delegation to the Olympics out of proportion. When it comes to security, wishful and liberal responses are risky. The Moon administration should take a conservative and prudent approach in interpreting North Korea’s messages. One swallow does not make a summer.