After nearly two years of international isolation worsened by a severe pandemic lockdown, North Korea is hinting it may finally be ready for dialogue — just not with the United States.
North Korea this week took initial steps toward improving ties with South Korea, restoring hotlines meant to manage inter-Korean tensions. North Korean officials have also signaled bigger moves may be coming, including another summit between the countries’ top leaders and talks on ending their formal state of war. The two Koreas remain in a technical state of war, since their 1950s conflict ended in a truce instead of a peace treaty.
South Korea’s left-leaning government, which for two years has tried to coax North Korea back to talks, is cautiously optimistic. Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, which handles ties with the North, said it believes Pyongyang’s decision to reopen the hotlines will lay the foundation for an extended period of friendlier cross-border relations.
But even as it reaches out to South Korea, the North has given no indication it wants to restart talks with the United States. North Korea has rejected or ignored near-daily U.S. offers to hold talks without preconditions. In a speech last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dismissed the U.S. invitations as a “cunning” distraction meant to disguise U.S. hostility.
The North Korean strategy appears designed to pressure South Korea to break with the United States, its treaty ally, according to many analysts. The North has long wanted South Korea to provide economic help through the resumption of inter-Korean projects, such as the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Complex. The facility based in the North provided South Korean companies with cheap labor from North Korea. But with such projects made more difficult by the coronavirus pandemic, the North has recently pushed for other concessions, such as a permanent end to U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
From North Korea’s perspective, now may be the perfect time to maximize pressure on South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is in the final months of his single term in office. “Pyongyang is taking advantage of Moon’s desperation to leave behind a Korean peace legacy before March,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based Korea specialist at the Center for a New American Security.
Moon held three summits with Kim Jong Un in 2018. The meetings helped pave the way for Kim’s summits with then-U.S. President Donald Trump. When U.S.-North Korea talks broke down in 2019, the North also grew angry with Seoul, essentially freezing Moon’s peace ambitions.
Although Moon has since said he is open to reviving cross-border economic projects, his government has been restrained from doing so by U.S. and international sanctions, which were put in place because of North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons program. By dangling the prospect of renewed inter-Korean talks, North Korea “hopes to make Seoul work harder to satisfy the (North Korean) regime and break from Washington,” said Duyeon Kim.
North Korea may also be trying to influence South Korean politics. Opinion polls suggest Moon’s peace efforts, though stalled, are broadly popular among South Koreans — which could help his ruling Democratic Party at the polls. One last Moon-Kim summit could also give justification for Moon’s ruling party to ratify a 2018 North-South agreement in the country’s National Assembly in an attempt to lock the next administration into continuing pro-engagement policies, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Of course, there’s no guarantee North Korea will allow talks to progress that far. The North also reopened inter-Korean hotlines in July, before severing them about two weeks later when South Korea and the United States went ahead with annual joint military exercises that Pyongyang sees as a provocation.
That kind of behavior has led some U.S. analysts to conclude North Korea may not want better relations with the South at all. Instead, the North appears to use periodic diplomatic engagement to buy time to advance its nuclear program, according to Sydney Seiler, the top U.S. intelligence officer on North Korea.
“There has not been a period of engagement that has led to sustained reduction of tensions,” Seiler said at an online forum last month hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization based in Washington D.C. “I’m always interested to see an introduction of a new piece of intelligence or information that would overturn my assessment, but you just have to conclude strategically North Korea does not seek sustained, improved relations with South Korea.”
From the perspective of South Korea’s current government, doing nothing isn’t an option, either. In an interview last week with the Washington Post newspaper, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong publicly urged the United States to detail more specific incentives it may offer to North Korea during negotiations. “If we let the status quo continue, it will lead to the strengthening of North Korean missile capabilities…we are very concerned about it,” Chung said.
South Korea isn’t the only one pushing for the administration of President Joe Biden to do more to entice North Korea. Jessica Lee, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said the Biden administration seems reluctant to address the underlying issues causing tension on the Korean Peninsula. “Pyongyang has determined that the only way to change the United States’ mindset is to go through Seoul. But Seoul should not want progress more than Washington or Pyongyang,” Lee says.
“Rather than fixate on the long-term goal of denuclearization, Washington should find short-term wins that will build trust and create the atmosphere for negotiations. For Pyongyang’s part, it needs to stop playing hard to get and be more explicit about what it wants and what it’s willing to do to get them,” she adds.
A growing number of analysts in Washington and Seoul see similarities between Biden’s North Korea policy and the “strategic patience” approach of former President Barack Obama. During Obama’s presidency, North Korea conducted four nuclear tests and more than 50 missile and rocket launches.
U.S. officials push back against those critiques. At an online event hosted last month by the Institute for Corean-American Studies, Mark Lambert, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Japan and Korea, said the ultimate blame for the impasse lies with North Korea. “If we could sit down with the North and get a sense of what it is they want and stop guessing, I think we can make some progress. But again, speaking personally, it’s a mistake to negotiate with yourself,” Lambert said.
Asked whether the Biden administration had shown enough urgency on the North Korea issue, Lambert replied: “We are serious about this. It’s just, what would you have us do? Catapult [U.S. envoy Sung Kim] into North Korea and say, ‘I’m here to negotiate?’ You can’t do that. You’ve got to have the other side willing to meet with you.”