PANMUNJOM, REPUBLIC OF KOREA (Analysis) — Since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s offer of dialogue with the South, Seoul and Pyongyang have wasted no time reestablishing communication channels in hopes of creating an atmosphere that would reduce tensions on the divided Korean peninsula.
Kim’s pledge to hold “sincere, honest, close” talks with the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in upended the conventional wisdom that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) “hermit regime” is eternally hell-bent on using its “weapons of mass destruction” against its southern compatriots.
The talks also make good on Moon’s campaign promises last year to revive diplomacy between the two states. Moon’s election victory marked an end to the hardline policies of his two predecessors, Lee Myung-bak (2008 – 2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013 – 2017), whose aggressive posture fanned the winds of war in the region.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s scandal-plagued administration has responded to the talks with a mixture of anxiety and diplomatic incoherence. Trump’s initial reply – the infamous “nuclear button tweet” – resulted in widespread questioning of the former reality television star’s mental health. Meanwhile, the White House hasn’t even appointed an ambassador to South Korea.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Pyongyang appears bemused by the U.S. commander-in-chief’s temperament, a fact made clear in an acidic editorial titled “Desperate Scream of Half-Witted Dotard,” published last week by ruling-party newspaper Rodong Sinmun.
“Trump’s bluff is regarded by the DPRK as just a spasm of a lunatic frightened by the might of Juche Korea and a bark of a rabid dog … [It] reflects the desperate mental state of a loser who failed to check the vigorous advance of the army and people of the DPRK,” the statement said.
The U.S. shouldn’t doubt even a bit the DPRK’s nuclear deterrent … but behave with prudence.”
Beltway pundits and officials in Washington have been vocal in their concern that the North-South talks pose a threat to the U.S.-dominated Asia-Pacific security architecture that arose from the ashes of the Korean War.
Any attempt by Seoul to formulate its own diplomatic policies goes against the grain of the purpose of the U.S.-created Republic of Korea (ROK), as the South is officially known. From the outset, the South was meant to be a permanent subordinate of Washington and a right-wing bulwark in the United States’ Cold War goal of establishing itself as the region’s preeminent power.
Right-wing diehards resist the “Pyongyang Olympics”
On Friday, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that athletes from the DPRK would be allowed to participate in next month’s Winter Games, clearing the way for 22 athletes from the DPRK to compete alongside their southern counterparts under the long-shelved Korean Unification Flag. The flag, which shows an undivided Korean Peninsula, was last used in the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China.
In 2012, DPRK officials and citizens waved the banner as pro-reunification activist No Su-hui returned to the South from his unauthorized visit to Pyongyang. Upon crossing the border of the Demilitarization Zone at the border village of Panmunjom, the flag was slapped from his hand and he was brutally arrested in full view of enraged northerners. A South Korean soldier immediately stepped on the flag, drawing further anger from observers on the northern side of the military demarcation line.
Watch | S. Korean activist arrested as he returns from unauthorized trip to the North
President Moon has faced strong opposition from right-wing forces in South Korea over the latest breakthrough, with many accusing the Liberal Party leader of borderline treason for engaging in talks. Conservatives have attempted to play on the zeal of the South’s sports fans to create widespread hostility to the talks, lamenting the transformation of the Pyeongchang Olympics into the “Pyongyang Olympics.”
“Politics is becoming the sole concern while sports is being pushed backstage,” said Chosun Ilbo. “How can we let the Olympics become a propaganda opportunity for the world’s most oppressive state?”
On Sunday, Pyongyang celebrity Hyon Song-wol led a delegation from the DPRK for a two-day visit to the venues of Olympics performance venues. Dozens of hard-right activists gathered near a train station receiving the dignitaries to burn reunification flags, the DPRK flag, and a large portrait of Kim Jong-un. The DPRK’s delegation watched dispassionately as police confronted the protesters, who stomped on the flags and photo while chanting hostile slogans.
The Allies’ cold shoulder: belligerent Tokyo sounds the alarm, Washington throws shade
The peace-building process has been greeted coldly by the South’s allies, Japan and the United States, who have spared no opportunity to disparage what they call DPRK’s “charm offensive.”
Japan’s right-wing government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has matched the unfolding talks with increased scare-mongering over the alleged threat from the DPRK. Abe and a significant number of his ruling coalition colleagues belong to Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), an ultra-nationalist group that calls for the vigorous remilitarization of the country and the transformation of the Japan Self-Defense Force into a world-class military capable of warding off threats from the DPRK and an increasingly confident China.
During his six-nation tour of Eastern Europe, Abe even went so far as using his first visit to Serbia to warn of the “great danger” that the DPRK’s ballistic missiles pose to Belgrade, which has enjoyed full diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. “The threat level is unprecedented,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman told Euronews.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeated his claim Friday of supporting talks while hinting at bad faith on the part of Seoul, claiming that officials had offered assurances that they wouldn’t veer from President Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure.”
“An extraordinary amount of time yesterday in the group discussion was [spent] hearing from Foreign Minister Kang [Kyung-wha] of South Korea about how they are not going to let that happen,” the top U.S. diplomat said.
Moon’s “Sunshine” versus Trump’s “Fire and Fury”
South Korea’s presidential Blue House defended its latest moves, issuing a statement Sunday noting that “North Korea’s participation in the Olympics will be a catalyst for building peace and easing tensions on the Korean peninsula.”
A former human rights lawyer and left-leaning nationalist, President Moon has long supported the “Sunshine Policy” introduced by his Liberal Party predecessor, President Kim Dae-jung, in 1998. The policy called for a drawn-out process of reunification between the ROK and DPRK and resulted in the rapid warming of North-South relations. For Pyongyang, the policy also opened the way to direct talks with the U.S. and Japan and the forging of diplomatic ties with various European countries.
In 2002, the process showed signs of weakening as then-President George W. Bush said the North was a part of the “Axis of Evil” and was pursuing the illicit development of “WMDs.”
Despite the revived pressure by Washington, in 2007 the two Koreas held a groundbreaking summit where Kim Dae-jung’s successor Roh Moo-hyun and DPRK leader Kim Jong-il agreed to work together to reduce tensions and end military confrontations.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the time that Roh, whom he later called “anti-American and probably a little crazy,” had asserted in talks that “the biggest security threats in Asia were the United States and Japan.” At the time, Moon Jae-in was the Roh administration’s chief of staff.
Roh even dared to say: “North Korea claims it is developing nuclear weapons and missiles to protect itself from outside threats -– I think part of that claim makes sense.”
A year later, Roh’s retirement cleared the way for hard-line President Lee Myung-bak. The Sunshine Policy was soon in tatters. Gates claims that Lee had to be restrained by Washington from launching a full-scale war on the DPRK following the sinking of South Korean navy corvette ROKS Cheonan.
Moon has attempted to walk a fine line between Washington and Pyongyang, pledging that the talks would lead to the “resolution of the nuclear issue,” a phrase seen by the North as a euphemism for the country’s disarmament.
Moon angered Pyongyang earlier this month when he said, “President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks.”
“[Seoul] should know that train and bus carrying our delegation to the Olympics are still in Pyongyang … The South Korean authorities had better ponder over what unfavorable results may be entailed by their impolite behavior,” the DPRK’s state media icily responded last Sunday.
Moon’s claim may not have been far from the truth, but not in a manner that would flatter the U.S. commander-in-chief.
Donald Trump: peace-builder?
On Saturday, The Washington Post revealed that Moon’s praise of Trump may have merely been a ruse. In a private telephone call on January 4, Trump relentlessly pressed Moon for public recognition, addressing the South Korean leader as “Jae-in.” A former Seoul official told the Post that Moon humored Trump, acquiescing to his demands merely for the sake of manipulating him into agreeing to postpone joint military drills until after the Olympics.
Trump has a unique talent when it comes to self-destructive statements. His infamous “fire and fury” threats to annihilate the DPRK, for example, are now the title of a devastating book depicting him as an old and weak-minded fool – a “dotard,” as Kim Jong-un memorably characterized him last September.
Likewise, rather than provoking the fearsome conflict he seems to want, Trump’s feckless threats and demanding attitude may be alienating Seoul and paving the way toward a turning point in the conflict that has divided Korea for nearly 70 years.
It’s still too early to tell where the ongoing reconciliation talks are headed, but it would be supremely ironic if President Trump’s abusive personality turned out to be the greatest contributor to a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.
Top Photo | A man takes photographs near the wire fence decorated with national flags, unification flags and ribbons carrying messages wishing for reunification of the two Koreas at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea, Jan. 19, 2018. (AP/Lee Jin-man)