Views

Why North Korea is eager to talk to the South

North Korea seems to be trying to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea, but it's not going to work

Last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shocked the world with the speed of his nuclear missile development, his brutal crackdown on rivals and suspicions that he ordered the assassination of his half-brother.

This year, it is a diplomatic offensive - but that doesn't mean a change of strategy.

North Korean officials met their southern counterparts on Tuesday for the first such talks in two years. The outcome was an agreement to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month as well as military-to-military talks.

Openness to dialogue is, of course, a mildly positive signal.

None of that, however, means North Korea has any intention of slowing its drive for more powerful nuclear missiles and warheads, specifically those that would allow it to hit the US.

Instead, Pyongyang appears to be pursuing a deliberate and increasingly successful strategy to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

It's a move that makes direct US military action against the Kim regime more difficult - if not impossible.

Washington has made it clear that its most important goal is to stop North Korea being able to strike the US mainland. South Korea, in contrast, is already within striking distance of the North's huge conventional, nuclear and suspected chemical and biological arsenal.

So while some in Washington might risk or even relish war to stave off a future threat to the US homeland, Seoul has no appetite for such a risky strategy.

The truth is there are serious limits as to how far North Korea can push the US and South Korea apart. South Korea remains heavily dependent on US troops for its protection, and even more on US arms sales.

Some analysts suspect South Korea's enthusiasm for diplomacy now is in part to avoid embarrassment or incidents during the Winter Olympics, which they fear might otherwise be disrupted by North Korean terrorism or cyber attacks.

What South Korea may well want to see less of is US sabre rattling, particularly US aerial exercises demonstrating the ability to strike North Korea's nuclear sites if necessary.

Still, Washington will be unhappy if South Korea can be persuaded to resume closer economic ties with the North, for example by reopening several cross-border economic zones.

Washington's strategy for persuading Pyongyang to slow its nuclear ambitions is heavily dependent on the economic isolation of North Korea.

South Korea's number one goal remains persuading the US not to take any unilateral action.

Although Mr Donald Trump was unable to visit the Demilitarized Zone during his Seoul visit last year, South Korean officials made sure the US president's helicopter ride showed him that the capital was only 56km from the border.

That puts Seoul well within range of Mr Kim Jong Un's artillery, and Pentagon projections have warned he could kill as many as 20,000 South Koreans a day - even without nuclear weapons.

This week's diplomatic niceties have almost certainly reduced the risk of North Korean disruption of the Winter Olympics by cyber attacks or worse.

It is possible they may have persuaded Mr Kim himself to slow his weapons tests in the coming months.

But they have done nothing to fix the underlying problem. 
- REUTERS

The writer is Reuters global 
affairs columnist.

WORLD