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by Benjamin Schiller
Is the Time Right for Talks with North Korea?
Last week, Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s leader, expressed his desire for restoring the inter-Korean hotline which was destroyed in August in protest against U.S.-South Korea military drills. He accused the U.S. of proposing talks without changing its “hostile policy towards the North.” He also said that South Korea “still follows the U.S.,” and that “mutual respect must be guaranteed and unfair views and double standard attitude must be dropped” before the countries could declare an official end to the Korean War.
“End of war declaration”
The resurfacing of this “end of war declaration” started with a speech delivered by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In in front of the UN General Assembly. Moon Jae-In’s aspirations for “speedy resumption of dialogue between the two Koreas and between the United States and North Korea” and also for “ending the war on the Korean Peninsula” by improving inter-Korean relations were the high points of his speech.
A few days after the president’s speech, Kim Yo-Jong, Kim Jong-Un’s sister, complimented the talks of peace by stating that “there is no need for North and South to waste time faulting at each other and engaging in a war of words” and showed green flag for the reestablishment of North-South Joint Liaison office and also the reorganization of North-South summit.
Silent missile launches
The events which preceded and succeeded the speech remind the world that the arms race is still in range in this region. In the past few months, North Korea launched two short-range missiles and South Korea responded with its own first underwater ballistic missile test justifying it as a response to North Korea’s missile launches.
Immediately after Moon Jae-In’s speech, Ri Thae Song, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister, responded by saying “that the declaration of termination of war is misused as a smokescreen covering up the U.S. hostile policy” and rejected it by calling the approach “premature.”
All these statements and activities indicate that North Korea is ready for talks but will do it only on its own terms without any interference from the United States or the international community.
Recently, Kim Jong-Un admitted that the economy of North Korea is in bad shape but did not talk of any economic reforms. The positive rate of growth which was maintained for the last three years has now been reversed to 0.4% in 2020.
The report of the Bank of Korea stated that along with the continuous sanctions from the U.S. and the UN, North Korea’s lockdown measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, and also severe weather events have severely damaged North Korea’s economy.
The United Nations reports that 40% of North Korea’s population is going hungry and are in desperate need of assistance, six out of ten do not have access to safe drinking water, and malnutrition among children is increasing. It has been reported that most of the population subsists on less than 445 calories a day. To save its economy, North Korea needs the sanctions to be reversed.
Kim Jong-Un is approaching ten years in power. State-run media outlets have already started to promote “10 years of great revolutionary leadership” with articles and programs. His government has also been trying to finish construction projects and is rushing to meet year-end product targets to add it to his list of achievements. The missile launches and the possibility of renewed talks with South Korea will show him as a strong and capable leader. Or at least that is the thinking in Pyongyang.
With South Korean elections around the corner, this is an opportunity for North Korea to re-establish relations with Seoul. Moon Jae-In might readily accept peace talks to show himself as a dealmaker. In addition, there is also no guarantee that the next occupant of the Blue House will be keen to talk.
With all these reasons, the situation prevailing has been best suited for North Korea to reignite peace talks. It has to act responsibly respecting the norms of international politics and take steps towards denuclearization. With few allies on its side, with no economic growth and poor living conditions of its people, North Korea has to use the opened window for negotiations cleverly. Instead of imposing sanctions which only result in more North Korean missile tests, Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang should figure out a path forward.