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[Park Sang-seek] Why has North Korea turned to a peace offensive?

Seizing the occasion of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, North Korea started a peace campaign toward South Korea and the US.

Different North Korea specialists and observers have different interpretations of North Korea’s sudden policy U-turn. Has the North Korean leadership’s siege mentality -- real or imagined, which it has been using as a tactical means to justify its totalitarian rule and military and subversive offensive against South Korea since the end of the Korean War -- turned into a panic disorder?

Since the North became a nuclear power, it has faced massive pressure from the US and the UN. In particular, the US, by itself and through the UN, has been making all-out efforts to strangle North Korea by blocking its contact with the outside world.

The US initiated the powerful UN Security Council Resolution 2397 that required all UN members to impose comprehensive economic sanctions against North Korea and urged them to cut off diplomatic and financial ties with it.

In concrete terms, the UNSC resolution requires that North Korea cut exports of gasoline, diesel and other refined oil products by 89 percent; that all members cut exports of industrial equipment, machinery, transportation vehicles and industrial metals to North Korea; and that countries using North Korean laborers send them home.

On the other hand, it prohibits countries from illegally providing aid to North Korea and smuggling North Korean coal and other prohibited commodities by sea. In reality, some countries still trade with North Korea, violating this UNSC resolution.

Some Chinese and Russian companies or individuals and pro-North Korean states may secretly trade war materials and general commodities with North Korea. But US ships on the high seas and seas surrounding North Korea watch whether any ships carry war materials to North Korea.

Moreover, US President Donald Trump has personally threatened to destroy North Korea if it does not denuclearize. The US also blocks countries from engaging in financial transactions with North Korea. Its official policy toward North Korea is “maximum pressure and engagement.” In other words, the US will apply any measures that can force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and normalize diplomatic relations with the country if it denuclearizes.

Under the circumstances, North Korea is becoming more and more isolated from the outside world. If any countries tries to trade with and provide financial support to North Korea secretly, the US will retaliate against such countries. The only outside sources of supplies for the necessities of the North Korean people are private commercial interactions among the Chinese in Northeastern China, Chinese residents in North Korea and the North Korean people.

According to North Korea specialists, the UNSC resolutions sanctioning North Korea for its nuclear development and the US’ policy of maximum pressure have caused the North Korean leadership to panic.

Moreover, the North Korean economy has seen a downturn to almost zero growth. It enjoyed the highest economic growth since 1999 (6.1 percent), but this fell to 3.9 percent in 2016. Its growth rate in 2015 sharply dropped to minus 1.1 percent, mainly due to a drought.

Furthermore, the maximum pressure policies by the US and the UN are not allowing the North Korean people to enjoy minimal living standards.

North Korea specialists classify the country’s people into three classes: the upper class, made up of high- and middle-ranking party and military officials as well as rich merchants who make money out of their private commercial activities in the “Jangmadang” or private market place; the middle class, consisting of lower-level party and military officials as well as middle-level merchants; and the low class.

The salaries of the upper class people are very low, and therefore they cannot enjoy comfortable lives unless they receive rebates or bribes from the middle and low class, particularly the Jangmadang merchants.

If foreign trade shrinks, incomes from North Koreans working abroad disappear and earnings from illegal trade with foreign countries, companies and international weapons merchants disappear. This leads to people of all classes suffering.

Under the circumstances, the North Korean leader will have no choice but to reconsider the confrontational strategy toward the US. For these reasons he has promised the denuclearization of North Korea. Whether he accepts the principle of complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantlement depends on at least two conditions: the guarantee of the survival of the existing political system of North Korea and a peace treaty between North Korea and the US.

The North Korean leader is likely to demand that the peace treaty includes the withdrawal of US ground troops from South Korea and a pledge that the US abandons the principle of the first use of nuclear weapons as other nuclear powers do.

According to President Moon’ proposal made at his speech in Berlin in July last year, his idea of a peace treaty seems like a multilateral, not a bilateral, treaty.

In order not to repeat the same mistakes that the US made in past negotiations with North Korea, Trump should never allow Kim Jong-un to use “salami tactics” at the negotiation table with the North.

Salami tactics refer to a strategy that could involve dividing up the topics for negotiations into as many “pieces” as possible to spend as many hours as possible on negotiations so that North Korea can buy enough time for its continued nuclear development.

North Korea used this tactic during nuclear negotiations at bilateral and six-party talks. Unless Trump rejects such salami tactics, it will be impossible to reach any reliable agreement with Kim.

An absolute majority of South Koreans believes that the peaceful reunification of Korea would take a long time and therefore they can live with North Korea as long as it does not provoke the South.

By Park Sang-seek

Park Sang-seek is a former chancellor of IFANS (now National Diplomatic Academy) and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” -- Ed.