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[News Focus] Seoul renews NK engagement push, but chances of success seen as slim

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, US President Donald Trump (left to right) at a three-way gathering in the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom in June 2019 (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, US President Donald Trump (left to right) at a three-way gathering in the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom in June 2019 (KCNA-Yonhap)

With a top US envoy for North Korea due in Seoul this week, South Korea is making a renewed push to restart the peninsular peace process, but prospects are dim with an apparently unwilling North Korea, experts said Monday.

Pyongyang said Saturday it would no longer deal with Washington, which it said saw engagement as a tool to power through its political crisis, in a statement by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui.

The message poured cold water on expectations in the South that President Moon Jae-in’s recent reshuffle of his North Korean team could bring fresh momentum in stalled inter-Korean relations and help facilitate Washington-Pyongyang dialogue on the North’s denuclearization.

Local reports said Moon’s office was rolling out an agenda where both sides make small compromises to strike a “small deal,” such as Pyongyang‘s dismantling parts of its nuclear facilities in exchange for Washington’s partial easing of sanctions.

President Moon, last week before the reshuffle, said he hoped to see a third summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un happen before November‘s US presidential election.

Against this backdrop, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun will visit Seoul this week, likely Tuesday, to discuss the current state of affairs with Seoul officials. He is likely to meet Moon’s new security team lineup during his three-day stay here.

“Biegun may be accompanied on this trip by Allison Hooker, who is the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian affairs at the White House,” a source in Seoul said.

Local experts, however, saw only slim chances of what Seoul envisions being realized.

They said the North would not come out for talks just to see incomplete sanctions relief, which it had refused at the Stockholm working-level talks with the US in October last year.

“Seoul is surely eager to revive momentum in nuclear talks. But Washington, keen to see Pyongyang refrain from provocation in the runup to the November election, would also see some good in the Moon’s initiative for the time being,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

The US wants to put the peninsula situation under its heel, just few months away from the presidential election, according to Shin.

Other experts concurred with Shin that the North would not come forward, adding the US would not be so enthusiastic either, neither now nor later unless certain conditions are met.

“To Washington, a complete inventory of Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities, let alone dismantle them, would be the lowest threshold for any talk to convene,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Choi added another face-to-face meeting with leader Kim without those conditions would not be tempting to President Trump, because it could neither appeal to voters nor be a foreign policy win.

Some North Korea specialists however offered that Pyongyang’s Saturday statement did not entirely rule out a summit, but left some room for Washington to pitch something that could entice the communist regime back to talks.

“The statement could be a message for the US that the North was ready to hear it out if it had to offer something more attractive than what it had in the past,” said Kim Hyung-suk, Seoul’s vice unification minister between 2016 and 2017.

But the former vice minister admitted Washington would have to be ready to suspend enforcement of a “wider range of sanctions” on Pyongyang for talks to follow. Analysts remain skeptical over whether the US would forge ahead.

By Choi Si-young (