North Korea reportedly told the US that it wants South Korea out of future nuclear talks.
This message was delivered to US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun in an informal US-North Korea contact before the surprise meeting of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom late last month.
The North Korean message recently conveyed by Biegun to some South Korean ruling party officials has made clear Pyongyang’s intent to supersede Seoul’s mediation.
According to Biegun, Pyongyang appears to want negotiations to proceed with speed in the form of a bilateral meeting.
Considering the North had told South Korean President Moon Jae-in “not to overstep his bounds to come between Pyongyang and Washington,” its latest demand does not sound unfamiliar.
South Korea was effectively excluded from the Panmunjom meeting. Though Trump met Kim on South Korean territory, Moon had little to do as a mediator.
The South Korean president said in a joint interview with news agencies that dialogue was going on between South and North Korea, but a senior official of the North Korean Foreign Ministry flatly denied the notion, saying there were no contacts at all. The official added that North Korea will never go through the mediation of the South Korean government.
If South Korea is excluded from negotiations on North Korean denuclearization, the talks may progress in an unwanted direction.
To make matters worse, opinions in the US that Washington should seek a small deal, or a phased denuclearization of North Korea, as an intermediate goal add to South Koreans’ anxiety over the country’s exclusion from denuclearization talks.
Officially, the US holds the position that it will maintain sanctions against North Korea until it is fully denuclearized.
US President Trump vowed not to rush nuclear negotiations, but he will likely speed them up to attain a certain intermediate goal.
Trump likely wants to show some diplomatic achievements to voters before next year’s presidential election, while Kim is desperate to get sanctions relief to revive his country’s economy.
A new idea has been taking shape inside the Trump administration that if it is difficult to attain the goal of complete denuclearization in a short period, it would be better to set a realistic second-best goal. That could be freezing the North Korean nuclear program and eliminating its rocket delivery systems, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US.
Of course, a nuclear freeze by North Korea could be a realistic hurdle to clear on the way to complete denuclearization, but only if the US adheres to its official position and maintains sanctions until the final goal is attained.
But if Trump decides to settle for a nuclear freeze in light of the difficulty of realizing complete denuclearization before the presidential election, and then shows little interest in full denuclearization after the election is over, South Korea will face the worst-case scenario.
In this case, the US will be spared from the North’s nuclear threats, but South Korea will not.
That is what Kim aims for in trying to exclude South Korea from negotiations.
Once sanctions are relaxed in exchange for a nuclear freeze, it will likely become more difficult to take further steps later.
Once the North signs a nuclear freeze deal with the US, it is unclear whether the North will comply with the agreements faithfully.
If the US fails to advance negotiations beyond that intermediate goal, North Korea will become an unchallenged nuclear weapons state.
The Moon administration must not assume that this nightmare will not come true, and it would do well to prepare a plan B. Pyongyang will keep trying to bypass Seoul in the denuclearization talks, but the South must not be left out. It ought to ensure that its positions are reflected in the US-North Korea talks.
The US and the North are currently preparing to restart their talks, possibly this month. Now is the time for South Korea to step up efforts to strengthen cooperation with the US.