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(News Focus) N.K.'s bold summit proposal seen as strategy to weaken sanctions

2018/02/10 22:02

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By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Feb. 10 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has taken a huge diplomatic gamble by proposing an inter-Korean summit, which analysts view as aimed at using ties with Seoul to come break of its isolation and weaken international sanctions.

The bold olive branch has thrown his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in into a delicate balancing act, between improving long-stalled cross-border ties while not hurting its alliance with the U.S. and the international unity in pressuring Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.

Kim's younger sister, Yo-jong, was sent south as his "special envoy" and on Saturday delivered his letter to Moon, which includes an invitation to Pyongyang at an early date.

The move raises prospects for the first inter-Korean summit in more than 10 years, marking a dramatic turn in strained inter-Korean ties, after years of tensions caused by the North's nuclear and missile tests.

A rare reconciliatory mood between the two Koreas set in since the North's leader announced his willingness to send delegates to the PyeongChang Winter Games in his New Year's message.

This photo, taken on Feb. 10, 2018, shows President Moon Jae-in (R) receiving North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's letter from Kim Yo-jong (L), the younger sister of the North's ruler, at Cheong Wa Dae. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Feb. 10, 2018, shows President Moon Jae-in (R) receiving North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's letter from Kim Yo-jong (L), the younger sister of the North's ruler, at Cheong Wa Dae. (Yonhap)

"Kim probably has invited Moon to Pyongyang as an inter-Korean summit is the fastest way to improve the Koreas' ties," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. Moon, who took office in May 2017, wants South Korea to sit in the driver's seat when handling North Korea affairs. The government hopes better inter-Korean relations can help pave the way for the resolution of North Korea's nuclear issue and broader talks between the U.S. and North Korea.

The two Koreas held summits in 2000 and 2007, both in Pyongyang, when South Korea was ruled by two consecutive liberal administrations, that took office in February 1998 and stayed in power for a decade.

But the current situation is considerably different from that time, as North Korea has advanced its nuclear and missile programs at an alarming pace.

North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006, including the latest and most powerful one in September 2017. It also fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) last year, some of which are capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

The North is under a set of multilayered international sanctions due to its provocations. U.S. President Donald Trump is staging a "maximum pressure' campaign to press the North to give up its nuclear arsenal.

"The North's invitation appears to be aimed at breaking its diplomatic isolation through better inter-Korean ties," said Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

Seoul has faced limited room in enhancing inter-Korean ties amid stringent international sanctions when it supported North Korea's participation in the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games.

South Korea temporarily eased its unilateral sanctions on North Korean ships' travel to the South. The move permitted an entry to the South by the North's ferry Mangyongbong-92 that carried North Korea's art troupe earlier this week.

It also sought an exception from the U.N. Security Council's sanctions for travel by Choe Hwi, a blacklisted North Korean official.

"Inter-Korean talks are the outcome of sanctions and pressure," said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University. "We can make North change when pressure continues for its denuclearization until the last minute."

  

This photo, taken on Feb. 10, 2018, shows President Moon Jae-in (C) posing at Cheong Wa Dae with Kim Yo-jong (L), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister, and Kim Yong-nam, the North's ceremonial head of state. (Yonahp) This photo, taken on Feb. 10, 2018, shows President Moon Jae-in (C) posing at Cheong Wa Dae with Kim Yo-jong (L), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister, and Kim Yong-nam, the North's ceremonial head of state. (Yonahp)

Some analysts said that the North's proposal is aimed at driving a wedge in the decades-long alliance between Seoul and Washington.

While North Korea proposed dialogue with the South, it said that "the North will not beg for dialogue with the U.S."

   Inter-Korean ties will stand at a critical juncture in early April when Seoul and Washington resume their joint military drills, which they agreed to be put off until after the PyeongChang Games and the March 9-18 Paralympics.

"The South faces tasks over how to coordinate with the U.S. over sanctions and the military exercises and to bring the North to dialogue," Professor Shin said.

Past inter-Korean summits were linked to progress over the resolution of North Korea's nuclear issue. But currently, there are no signs of the North giving up its nukes. Pyongyang has announced the completion of its nuclear programs.

Before a historic summit in 2000, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry proposed a three-stage resolution on the North's nuclear programs in 1999, known as the Perry Process.

North Korea's first nuclear test, in 2006, heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But in February 2007, North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear-related facilities in exchange for a supply of heavy fuel oil and economic aid. The deal paved the way for the second inter-Korean summit.

Some analysts said that Moon needs to send a special envoy to North Korea after gauging the proper timing through close coordination with relevant countries.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said that it is desirable for Moon to seek candid dialogue with Kim Jong-un, rather than to attach the string of denuclearization.

"The South needs to send a high-level delegation to Pyongyang to hammer out details about a third summit," Cheong said. "Seoul should set up detailed strategy over how to coordinate its North Korea policy with the U.S. and others."

  

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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