Faced with a North Korea that seems both increasingly unpredictable and increasingly militarily capable, South Korea's new government has made a formal proposal: It's time for new talks.
Suh Choo-suk, South Korea's vice defense minister, announced the proposal Monday, suggesting that the two neighboring nations could meet in the border village of Panmunjom to discuss military and humanitarian issues. If the North agrees (it so far has issued no response), it would be the first talk between the two governments since 2015.
The news comes in the wake of a number of key developments in North Korea's nuclear weapons program — including, most shockingly, the July 4 launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit Alaska. But talks have long been touted as an option for South Korea's liberal new president, Moon Jae-in, when it comes to dealing with the North.
“I will meet Kim Jong Un when preconditions of resolving the nuclear issue are assured,” Moon told The Washington Post's Anna Fifield and Yoonjung Seo in May, days before he entered office.
Will a policy of dialogue work? Right now, that's impossible to say, but Moon's push for it comes down to three stark reasons.
1. Any military conflict with North Korea would be disastrous for the South
Internationally, a lot of attention is paid to North Korea's nuclear weapons and its advancing missile technology. The fear is that once North Korea has the ability to launch a nuclear weapon that could target the mainland United States, it would be a major deterrent against any future military action.
But for Seoul, the deterrent is already there. South Korea's capital city sits just 30 miles from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The city, which has a metropolitan area of around 25 million, is within easy reach of North Korea's artillery guns. If North Korea decided to use these weapons, they could cause huge damage in a short amount of time.
One study from 2012 estimated that 64,000 people could be killed by this artillery in the first day. Even if South Korea and its American allies could destroy these weapons quickly, it would likely not be quick enough to stop massive bloodshed — including considerable losses among U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Worse still, North Korea now has nuclear weapons that it can likely mount on missiles that could likely reach South Korea, raising the possibility of a conflict of incredible destruction. Many of these nuclear weapons are hidden away, meaning a preemptive strike would be unlikely to disable them.
2. Sanctions don't appear to be changing North Korea's behavior
The other big option for dealing with North Korea is to apply economic pressure, rather than military pressure, in the hope of convincing North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program. There is evidence that in some cases such a policy can work: Sanctions certainly played at least some role in bringing Iran to the table to negotiate its own treaty on nuclear weapons.
But here, too, there's a problem. North Korea is already under sanctions and it has been for years. And during that time, it appears to have become more determined to pursue its weapons system. So far, at least, sanctions have not worked on North Korea.
Experts say that North Korea has become adept at evading these economic restrictions placed upon it, often using illicit networks to organize its trade. “The sanctions were perfunctory,” Ri Jong Ho, a former North Korean official who defected in 2014, recently told The Post.
Sanctions do still seem to be the favored option for the United States. There are signs that the Trump administration is hoping to increase sanctions effectiveness by getting more creative — targeting Chinese firms and individuals involved in trade with North Korea, or smaller countries like Sudan that still have an economic relationship with Pyongyang. However, it's still hard to imagine China or Russia getting fully on board with more economic pressure. Both countries share borders with North Korea and have little desire for it to collapse. Even being charitable, Beijing and Moscow's commitment to sanctions has been halfhearted.
Moon still supports sanctions, suggesting that new ones were needed when he appeared in Berlin with German leader Angela Merkel shortly after the July 4 ICBM test. But he is also seeking to improve Seoul's relationship with Beijing, currently under huge strain due to THAAD, a U.S. missile system recently installed in South Korea and viewed as a threat by China.
3. Previous talks have produced some results
Moon is far from the first South Korean leader to seek dialogue with North Korea. Two of his liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, implemented what was known as a “Sunshine Policy” between 1998 and 2008. The policy was designed to soften Seoul's stance toward Pyongyang, encouraging political interaction and economic agreements.
Moon knows the policy well — he was Roh's campaign manager during his election bid and a close aide during his time in office. After a decade of attempts at reconciliation, many viewed the Sunshine Policy as a failure. Critics suggested that North Korea had used it for financial gain without making real concessions in important areas such as its nuclear program or human rights. South Korea returned to conservative rule in 2008. Under the leadership of Lee Myung-bak and later Park Geun-hye, most of the key elements of the policy — such as the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Region — have been shut down or scaled back.
But now, after another decade of a new, harsher policy failed to curb Pyongyang's antagonism, some argue it is time to revisit the merits of a Sunshine Policy. There is also a groundswell of support behind Moon after a huge scandal led to Park's impeachment — one poll showed Moon with the highest approval rating ever for a South Korean president this early in their first term — and there is a desire for stability after so much domestic political upheaval.
Moon may be able to win some short-term agreements from North Korea, which also made a call for talks in 2016. Both sides could scale back the tension along the DMZ or reintroduce a military hotline cut off by North Korea last year. The South Korean Red Cross Society has also proposed an attempt to set up reunions for families split between the North and South — an emotional issue in both countries. Similar reunions have not taken place since 2015.
A recent poll found that nearly 76.9 percent of South Koreans favored a return to inter-Korean dialogue. It's not clear how they would feel if Seoul offered too many concessions or North Korea failed to live up to its side of the bargain or act belligerently. But right now, many liberal South Koreans seem to feel that talks are the best option of a bad bunch.
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