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NK unlikely to seek engagement with Seoul until next year's campaign season: ex-USFK commander

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

North Korea is unlikely to seek engagement with South Korea until next year as the regime believes it would have better leverage to deal with Seoul after the country's presidential election season kicks off, former US Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks said Thursday.

During the third and the final session of the annual Seoul Defense Dialogue (SDD), Brooks also called for both maximum pressure on and engagement with North Korea while moving away from classic views about what steps Pyongyang will take in the future.

"In 2021, the South Korean government is in its final year, and campaigning is ongoing. North Korea will be going to wait until 2021 before they begin to engage South Korea. South Korea will continue to try, of course, but I think there would be limited responses, and likely negative responses until such times, as North Korea thinks they have better leverage," Brooks said.

President Moon Jae-in's five-year term ends in May 2022.

As for relations with Washington, the North is likely to wait until the November election, though it leaves the door for dialogue open, according to Brooks, who headed the 28,500-strong USFK from 2016 to 2018.

"Pyongyang controls the pace of engagement. They decide when they are going to open a door and when they slam the door closed," he claimed.

In June, North Korea threatened to take military actions against South Korea, calling it an "enemy," primarily in protest over Seoul's failure to stop defectors from conducting anti-regime propaganda leaflet campaigns. The North then cut all communication lines with the South, and blew up the inter-Korean liaison office building in the border town of Kaesong.

"I think their recent slamming of the door was much a reflection of North Korea being significantly overwhelmed internally. They have the pressures of COVID-19, pressures of sanctions, they had weather conditions that continue to this date with yet another typhoon approaching," Brooks said.

In order to keep North Korea on the path for dialogue, the maximum pressure and engagement campaign is important, according to the former commander.

"Together, two approaches -- pressure and engagement -- create both necessary and sufficient conditions to keep North Korea focused on the task and moving in the right direction. ... We've shifted potential military conflicts (in 2017) to one that created potential for peace through diplomacy," he said.

Noting that engagement is the harder challenge, while pressure is easier to participate in, the former commander said there seems to be "an easy drift towards the continuance of pressure and the diminution of engagement," which serves as a challenge to be able to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula in the future.

Asked about possible scenarios of the North's future provocations, Brooks said it does not necessarily mean a return to traditional, military ways of provocation.

"The use of conventional weaponry or even the use of missiles or nuclear technologies isn't necessarily where they are going to go. There could be a new way to use those, but it's also possible that they are thinking completely differently about how to create pressure on different countries of the region," Brooks said.

"Isn't there a chance to threaten China in a different way? If North Korea would do that, one should recognize that would be risky, but North Korea has engaged in risky behaviors that defy expectations before," he said. "I think we have to be very broadminded about that. North Korea is very creative and very unpredictable."

In his New Year's Day message, leader Kim Jong-un warned he will show off a "new strategic weapon" in the near future, which experts said may mean an advanced type of its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Kim also warned earlier of taking a "new way" if Washington fails to change its stance.

Alexander Minaev, professor of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, however, called for lifting sanctions against the North, claiming that leader Kim would never cooperate with the international community as long as the sanctions regime remains in place.

"The US stubbornly continues the policy of tough sanctions. But it is time to understand that these methods do not work against North Korea," the professor said. "Sanctions would only take a toll on ordinary citizens, not the regime. Pressure and sanctions cannot solve the nuclear problem."

Nakamitsu Izumi, high representative for UN Disarmament Affairs, stressed the importance of the continued unity of the Security Council members.

"We all need to invest political efforts in making sure that the cooperation will continue and that the unity of the Security Council will be preserved. This will be absolute essential for any peaceful solutions on the Korean Peninsula," Izumi said.

To address nuclear challenges, Fan Jishe, director of the Institute for International Strategic Studies of China's Central Party School, said the establishment of a detailed road map, as well as multilateral working-level talks, is a must.

"Without the follow-on moves after the summitry, all progress achieved through summitry could be reversed as what happened this year," he said.

Denuclearization negotiations between the US and North Korea have made little progress since the no-deal summit in Hanoi last year due to the gap over the scope of Pyongyang's denuclearization and sanctions relief by Washington. (Yonhap)
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