World War 3: North Korea Situation Report
South Korea began preparations Wednesday for what would be the first military talks with North Korea in more than three years.
The move is a follow-up to a deal at their high-level talks a day earlier on the North’s participation in the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
But it remains uncertain whether the two sides will produce a meaningful agreement on reducing border tensions heightened by the Kim Jong-un regime’s provocations and yearslong lack of bilateral dialogue.
The South’s defense ministry is expected to propose a date and venue for the agreed-upon meeting via the restored inter-Korean military hotline later this week or next week.
The North informed the South on Tuesday that it has reconnected the military communication channel in the “western district,” which Pyongyang severed in early 2016 in protest against Seoul’s decision to shut down the joint industrial complex in Kaesong.
The two sides began “normal” operations of the channel after a brief test run Wednesday morning without a hitch, according to the Ministry of National Defense.
The South believes it is crucial to keep the military hotline open to help avoid accidental armed clashes, as the Yellow Sea border is disputed. The waters around the Northern Limit Line (NLL), their de facto sea border, has been a flash point for several deadly naval skirmishes.
The two Koreas had their last military talks in October 2014 at the truce village of Panmunjom, with South Korea represented by then-Deputy Defense Minister for National Defense Policy Ryu Je-seung. His northern counterpart was Kim Yong-chol, a four-star general who commands the Reconnaissance General Bureau.
The level of chief delegates in the new round of talks is up to consultations amid a view that they are likely to start with working-level negotiations focused on procedures and other details related to the communist neighbor’s plan to send athletes, a taekwondo performance team, a cheering squad and reporters to PyeongChang.
The South’s eastern town is located some 80 kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
“As North Korea’s delegation will likely visit South Korea through the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the subject of primary discussions is (border) passage procedures and safety guarantee measures,” a government official said.
No big trouble is expected in striking an agreement on the topic, given the North’s desire to join the Olympic Games to open on Feb. 9 for a two-week run, he added.
The South is also expected to raise the issue of easing tensions along the heavily fortified border.
The liberal Moon Jae-in administration has stated its aim of halting “all acts of hostility” near the MDL, including loudspeaker-using propaganda campaigns.
North Korean officials are apparently sensitive to the cross-border broadcasts and spread of leaflets critical of their regime.
“The issue can be addressed in principle at working-level military talks, if held. But South and North Korea would need to have general-grade talks to touch on the matter in detail,” another government official said.
A potential deal breaker is the North’s longstanding call for the halt to the regular joint defense drills between South Korea and the United States.
The two sides have decided to hold this year’s Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises after the Olympic and Paralympic Games end in mid-March in a bid not to antagonize the North.
World War 3 Key Issue, Nuclear North Korea
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday welcomed the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue but said his country will continue to work with the international community to denuclearize North Korea.
In his first press conference in the new year, Moon also said his country has no plans to ease sanctions on the communist state against the will of the international community.
“Now the dialogue with North Korea has begun, but because the North Korean nuclear issue has not been resolved, South Korea will continue to keep pace with the pressure and sanctions by the international community. We have no plans to ease our unilateral sanctions against North Korea that are in place in addition to international sanctions for now,” he told the press conference.
The remarks came one day after the divided Koreas resumed their cross-border dialogue to discuss the North’s participation in the Winter Olympic Games to be held in the South Korean city of PyeongChang from Feb. 9-25.
The inter-Korean talks marked the first of their kind since December 2015, but they have prompted some concerns in the international community that an improvement in inter-Korean ties may create loopholes in what Seoul and its allies earlier called their “maximum pressure and sanctions” against the North.
Moon apparently sought to eradicate such concerns, saying the ultimate goal of the inter-Korean dialogue was to denuclearize the reclusive North.
“As you may know, we must also seek to realize the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue while improving South-North Korean relations. These two are not an issue that can go separate ways. The South-North Korean issue can be improved when the North Korean nuclear issue is resolved and once the South-North Korean relations are improved, they can help resolve the North Korean nuclear issue,” he said.
“The goal of sanctions and pressure is to bring North Korea to the dialogue table. This is only the start, but we cannot say dialogue is the only solution. We will work to help resolve the North Korean nuclear issue by seeking improvements in the South-North Korea relationship through dialogue but should the North stage an additional provocation, the international community will continue to put strong sanctions. And our government too will not have no choice but to push for both (dialogue and sanctions),” the president added.
Moon also stressed that the United States too welcomed the resumption of inter-Korean talks, saying the talks may have been possible due to U.S.-led sanctions.
“They may have been the outcome of the sanctions and pressure led by the United States,” he said. “The dialogue between South Korea and North Korea have begun. We plan to turn this dialogue into a chance to improve South-North Korea relations and also resolve the North Korean nuclear issue through dialogue.”
Taking questions from some 200 local and foreign journalists, the president also offered his views on ways to address a controversial 2015 deal with Japan to settle the long-running dispute over Korean women forced into sexual servitude for Japanese troops during World War II.
On Tuesday, South Korea’s foreign minister reaffirmed the government’s stance that the deal is defective but said the country will not seek renegotiations of the agreement.
Moon said the decision not seek renegotiation of the defective deal was the best decision available because no government agreement can truly resolve the historic issue.
“Basically, I believe the comfort women issue can only be resolved under the principle of truth and justice. The victims may be able to forgive when Japan acknowledges the truth and sincerely apologize to the victims, and when it works with the international community to prevent a recurrence of such tragedy, and that will be the complete resolution of the issue,” he said.