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(News Focus) Uncertainties shroud prospect of dialogue with N. Korea in 2018

2017/12/25 15:22

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By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 25 (Yonhap) -- Uncertainties hang over the prospect of dialogue with North Korea next year over its fast-advancing nuclear program, with Pyongyang keen on military buildup and Washington pushing to thwart it under its "maximum pressure" campaign.

Some observers cautiously prognosticate a turnaround in the nuclear standoff, as U.S. President Donald Trump may seek a diplomatic coup ahead of the November mid-term elections, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un increasingly wary of worsening economic travails.

But pessimism is still rampant over a possible breakthrough in the stalemate, as Pyongyang doubles down on its nuclear armament to ensure its regime survival and strengthen its bargaining power in future negotiations with the United States or South Korea.

All eyes are now fixated on Kim's upcoming New Year's address, which would likely serve as a bellwether for the reclusive state's policy stance over its external relations, including those with Seoul and Washington.

Cho Sung-ryul, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, anticipated that Kim could offer a positive message in response to Seoul's continued efforts to cultivate amicable cross-border ties.

"As (South Korean) President Moon Jae-in has sent a positive signal to the North, there could be a positive message from the North's New Year's address, and I believe there could also be inter-Korean contact in time for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics," he said.

Cho was referring to Moon's proposal to Washington to postpone the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise until after the games slated to take place from Feb. 9-25, so as to dial down tensions from the drills Pyongyang has decried as a "rehearsal for a war of invasion" against it.

The researcher also pointed to the possibility that the North could use the Olympics to resume its "deceptive" peace offensive, given that it has thus far shown no willingness to roll back its nuclear program despite crippling international sanctions.

"But as there has not been any impetus for cross-border dialogue, we are now at a crucial juncture for creating momentum for restoring inter-Korean talks," Cho added.

Since Moon took office in May, the liberal president has repeatedly signaled his desire for inter-Korean dialogue and rapprochement.

His government has approved humanitarian aid to poverty-stricken North Korean citizens despite conservatives' searing criticism and made a string of dialogue overtures to reduce military tensions and address one of the two countries' most pressing humanitarian issues -- the families separated since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

It has also clarified that it will not pursue any forced reunification of the Korean Peninsula or a regime change, to help pave the way for reconciliation with the isolated neighbor.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C), U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap) This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C), U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap)

But Pyongyang has only responded with relentless provocations such as its sixth and most powerful nuclear experiment on Sept. 3 and a fusillade of missile launches, including its Nov. 29 test of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), called the Hwasong-15.

Despite such provocations, some observers still do not rule out the possibility of talks between Washington and Pyongyang due in part to their domestic political factors.

Washington has been under growing pressure to prevent the scenario of the North crossing the red line of acquiring the full capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile capable of striking the continental U.S.

Thus it may have to ramp up diplomatic steps to stave off the crisis, which could put its own cities at risk and could turn the domestic political pendulum in favor of Trump's opponents ahead of the November elections, observers said.

The domestic politics may not be favorable for the North Korean leader next year as well, as his nuclear adventurism has led to tougher global sanctions that have further exacerbated economic hardships for starving North Koreans.

"In the mid-1990s, the North suffered a serious food crisis following the death of former leader Kim Il-sung, but some forecast that the North's economic situation, in some cases, could become worse than that," Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said during a forum in October.

Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University's Far East Institute, predicted that next year would prove to be a stiff test for the leadership of the dynastic ruler who has so far focused only on nuclear buildup.

"Next year will be a considerably significant period for leader Kim, as questions may arise over his leadership if he does not present to his citizens something new," he said.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council passed toughened sanctions against the North for its latest missile provocation last month. It slapped the regime with caps on imports of refined and crude oil and blocked key sources of revenue suspected of funding the weapons programs.

The U.S.-drafted resolution seeks to slash refined petroleum product exports the by 89 percent. The council imposed an annual cap of 2 million barrels in September, and the new resolution calls for a further reduction to 500,000 barrels.

While many expect that these sanctions will after all bite the regime and force it to the negotiating table, some others questioned their efficacy, strengthening speculation that the nuclear standoff will further be protracted.

"The North knows how to circumvent the sanctions," Robert Gallucci, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator said in a forum at Seoul's National Assembly last week. "Don't imagine that sanctions would cause so much pain that the North would abandon its nuclear weapons. Don't imagine sanctions will bring the regime crashing down."

   In light of rhetoric from the U.S., it remains unclear whether Washington could modulate its hitherto tough stance on the North and hold out an olive branch to it.

In its new national security strategy document, the U.S. casts the North as a "rogue" state, with Trump vowing to achieve a denuclearization and prevent the North from threatening the world. Washington has even mentioned options to "compel" denuclearization.

(END)

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