Dialogue Spurs Possible Easing Of Korean Tensions

Gideon Rachman

Is this the beginning of the end of the Korean crisis? For the past year, tensions on the Korean peninsula have been building steadily, as North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme has advanced rapidly and the Trump administration has responded with threats of “fire and fury”.

But this week there has been a diplomatic breakthrough — with North Korea and South Korea staging their first direct talks in more than two years. The discussions appear to have gone well. North Korea will now be sending athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month. And further talks on military issues are planned.

Exploratory negotiations of this sort should be a vital part of moving away from nuclear brinkmanship. Nonetheless, considerable caution is still in order.

The obvious problem is that a north-south dialogue on the Korean peninsula does not deal with the issue that has been driving the crisis — the development of North Korean nuclear weapons that potentially pose a direct threat to the US. The Trump administration has said that this development is intolerable and has suggested that it is prepared to take pre-emptive military action, rather than rely on deterrence to contain the North Korean nuclear threat.

In an ideal world, these initial tentative talks between North and South Korea would broaden out into a wider dialogue — that eventually leads the way to a negotiated solution of the nuclear tensions between the US and North Korea.

However, when the South Koreans attempted to raise the issue of the North’s accelerating nuclear programme in this week’s talks, they were pushed back firmly. The representatives of Kim Jong Un, the dictatorial leader of North Korea, said that their nation’s nukes were directed at the US — not South Korea.

That is not a message that Washington is likely to find reassuring. And it raises the possibility that the real motive of the North Koreans in staging talks now, is to drive a wedge between the Trump administration and the government of President Moon-Jae-in in Seoul.

For the fact is that US and South Korean interests are far from identical. South Korea has had to live within range of North Korean nuclear weapons for many years. If the North now develops a capacity to hit Los Angeles as well, that does not directly increase the threat to the inhabitants of South Korea. Indeed, the biggest risk for the South Koreans currently is that the US makes good on its threats of pre-emptive military action — leading to devastating retaliation from the Kim regime that could cause massive casualties in the South Korean capital, Seoul, which is well within the range of North Korean artillery.

The danger that this diplomatic initiative will open a divide between the US and South Korea is raised by the temperamental difference between President Trump and President Moon. The US leader thrives on confrontation. By contrast, Mr Moon is low key and has long been an advocate of dialogue on the Korean peninsula.

The North Koreans understand these divisions between Washington and Seoul well. They also have a long record of starting talks as a delaying tactic or to gain a propaganda advantage — before returning to the path of confrontation.

But one new factor in this traditional pattern is the unpredictable nature of Mr Trump. Over the past year, the US president’s angry and erratic style has seemed to be a major factor, increasing the chances of conflict. But it also possible that increasing familiarity with the Korean issue will have convinced Mr Trump of the extreme dangers of starting a war on the Korean peninsula. The US president may need a ladder to climb down. This week’s talks could help him to find one.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

Source : https://www.ft.com/content/86c8182a-f6b1-11e7-88f7-5465a6ce1a00

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