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(News Focus) Guarded optimism rises over prospect of U.S.-N.K. dialogue

2018/03/04 17:12

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SEOUL, March 4 (Yonhap) -- Guarded optimism is emerging for possible dialogue between the United States and North Korea, as South Korea pushes to broker talks through a rare dispatch of special emissaries to the communist state this week.

Experts said both Washington and Pyongyang could seek to use the growing momentum for dialogue as the former hopes to tackle evolving nuclear threats from the reclusive state and the latter scrambles to break out of its isolation and end global sanctions.

But they warned that the U.S.'s insistence that the North clearly display its commitment to denuclearization as a precondition for any talks, as well as the North's pursuit of recognition as a nuclear power, could stymie their reconciliation efforts.

Seoul's presidential office said Sunday that its five-member high-level delegation will embark on a two-day trip to Pyongyang on Monday. The delegation will be led by Chung Eui-yong, the head of the presidential National Security Office, and includes Suh Hoon, the chief of the National Intelligence Service.

"Central to the prospect of U.S.-North Korea dialogue will be how much willingness to denuclearize North Korea will be shown during the South Korean delegation's visit this week," Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University, said.

"Since late last year, the North has not engaged in any strategic provocations, and it is aware of the need for talks with the U.S. and aware of the fact that they do need to take some steps to pave the way for talks ... Plus, they might not want to break the momentum for dialogue," he added.

Over the past few months, Pyongyang has engaged in what analysts here call a charm offensive by accepting rare cross-border talks and sending delegations to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Observers believe its shift from a provocative stance has been driven in part by crippling sanctions, which have exacerbated problems in its threadbare economy and could weaken public loyalty for the dictatorial regime, and by U.S. President Donald Trump's threats of military actions.

However, doubts remain over its intentions, with conservatives here calling its about-face a disguised attempt to weaken global unity in the enforcement of sanctions and secure more time to finish its nuclear and missile programs.

Now, attention is being drawn to what kind of concessions Pyongyang would make for talks. Analysts point out that Seoul should seek to shape Pyongyang's concessions in a way that is acceptable for Washington.

One of the realistic options for the North may be to put a moratorium on its nuclear and missile tests to pave the way for talks with the U.S., though it remains uncertain whether Washington, which has pursued complete denuclearization, would accept it.

Nam Chang-hee, a professor of international politics at Inha University, stressed the need for Seoul to explore "creative" ways to persuade both Washington and Pyongyang to engage in talks.

"Seoul can explore ways for Washington and Pyongyang to find their shared strategic interests in bilateral cooperation ... If Seoul can find a creative approach to enable them expand their mutual strategic interests, that could be a boon for Seoul's mediation efforts," he said.

One idea the professor floated is that Seoul help Washington and Pyongyang cooperate to keep an increasingly assertive China in check, considering that the U.S. has been striving to prevent China's economic and military preponderance in the Asia-Pacific, with the North seeking to reduce its hefty reliance on its only ally and patron.

The November midterm elections in the U.S., seen as a referendum on Trump, could be a variable for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, observers said, as the U.S. leader could seek to achieve some progress on the North Korean conundrum through negotiations, observers said.

"Time is not on anyone's side ... Due to sanctions and military pressure from the U.S., the North may need a breakthrough, while the U.S. is not in a position to leave the evolving threats from the North's intercontinental ballistic missiles -- capable of striking the continental U.S. -- unattended," Park of Handong Global University said.

"So, I believe there are chances for dialogue," he added.

Skepticism, however, persists over Pyongyang's will to denuclearize. It has declared itself a nuclear power in its constitution and has repeatedly argued that it cannot bargain away its nuclear program until Washington abandons "hostility" towards it.

The upcoming South Korea-U.S. military exercises could also get in the way of Seoul's push for talks. Pyongyang has long criticized the regular defensive exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion.

Some argue Pyongyang could also draw a lesson from the weakened global standing of countries that have abandoned their nuclear arsenals, such as Ukraine, which suffered from Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.