SEOUL, South Korea, Jan. 17 (UPI) — The recent round of talks between South and North Korea are unlikely to break the stalemate on denuclearization, South Korean experts told UPI on Wednesday.
Amid ongoing discussions with the North to arrange its participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics, Seoul said it aims to initiate dialogue on improving inter-Korean relations as well as smooth the way for denuclearization talks.
However, experts say it takes two to sit down for dialogue.
“Wars can be proclaimed unilaterally but peace or dialogue needs the consensus of both parties. South Korea lacks leverage to interest the North in talks on denuclearization,” said Park Hwee-rhak, a political science professor at Kookmin University.
Meetings at the border village of Panmunjom have so far focused on the details of the North’s Olympic delegation, with Seoul agreeing to accommodate hundreds of North Korean athletes, officials, performers and reporters to the Games.
The two sides also agreed to pursue closer inter-Korean ties and exchange as well as hold military talks to defuse tension on the peninsula.
However, denuclearization has remained a sensitive spot, with the North’s chief delegate to the high-level talks last week expressing strong distaste at the mention of the issue.
“There is absurd speculation that the denuclearization issue is being discussed during the talks. I do not understand why I hear such things,” Ri Son-gwon said, ignoring questions on whether there would be future discussions on the matter.
In fact, Park believes the North’s decision to take part in the Olympics is a move to solidify its status as a nuclear state.
“Its participation in the Olympics can be seen as a statement that its nukes are no longer up for discussion. With big events coming up, the issue of denuclearization is being buried under the Olympics and other inter-Korean issues — and that’s what Pyongyang is aiming for. So that its status as a nuclear state would naturally become a fait accompli,” he said.
The North may also being trying to buy time to further advance its nuclear technology, according to Park.
After its latest intercontinental missile test on Nov. 29 last year, North Korea claimed to have achieved full nuclear capability.
However, many experts believe the rogue regime still lacks key missile technology to carry out its threat of striking the American mainland.
“The North knows it will get burnt if it irks the United States so it is trying to buy time to ramp up its capabilities as well as break up the international community’s joint efforts to pressure the regime. This isn’t easy to achieve so it appears to be isolating Washington while thawing ties with Seoul — and trying to benefit as much as it can from Seoul,” said Kim Cheol-woo, a military research fellow at Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un‘s speech on New Year’s day extended a rare olive branch to Seoul while threatening to strike Washington with a nuclear button. This was largely interpreted as a move to weaken the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
“It has already become difficult for the U.S. to enforce military solutions to the situation,” said Park, adding that the postponed joint military drills between Seoul and the United States are likely to be conducted on a smaller scale.
Addressing these concerns, President Moon Jae-in, in his New Year’s media conference, reassured the South will continue to consult the United States on matters concerning the Korean peninsula, even crediting U.S. President Donald Trump with enabling dialogue with Pyongyang.
Moon stressed that South Korea will not compromise its goal of denuclearizing the North while pursuing an improvement of inter-Korean relations.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry also said it would aim to pave the way for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, through the Winter Olympics and progress in inter-Korean talks.
Professor Kim Dong-ryul of Pukyoung National University said it is unlikely the cross-border talks would set any milestones on the path to denuclearization.
“I don’t believe there will be a major agreement or significant turnaround in South-North relations in a short period of time and North Korea would not be willing to discuss denuclearization, as it is actually seeking recognition as a nuclear state,” he said.
However, the professor said the South should aim to maintain the atmosphere for dialogue and broker any talks between Washington and Pyongyang if the opportunity arises.
The United States has maintained it will never accept the North as a nuclear power, but has suggested the door is open for dialogue if Pyongyang proves it is serious about negotiations.
“The U.S. desires dialogue with the North but there hasn’t been a momentum or means of justification for initiating talks. So it has expressed support for South Korea’s attempt to turn the Pyeongchang Olympics into the so-called peaceful Olympics,” Kim Chul-woo said.
On Tuesday, after a diplomatic summit of foreign ministers in Vancouver, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said time is ripe for talks with North Korea.
The official said the crisis over the North’s nuclear and missile program is at a “tenuous stage.”
“The stand we are taking is, we will never accept them as a nuclear power,” he said. “So, it’s time to talk. But they have to take the step that says they want to talk.”
While reiterating Washington’s stance that diplomacy is the best way forward, he warned, “If North Korea does not choose the path of engagement, of discussion, negotiations, then they themselves will trigger a [military] option.”