Two Koreas move closer despite deadlock over nuclear talks

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 12, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea — At a time when the United States and South Korea are usually gearing up for annual war games, Seoul is instead preparing for a possible third summit with the allies’ main foe.

The two Koreas have inched closer together with a series of exchanges and high-level talks despite a deadlock in nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, nearly two months after President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shook hands in Singapore.

Senior North and South Korean officials were scheduled to meet Monday in the border village of Panmunjom to measure progress in implementing agreements reached in the previous two meetings between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The delegates also will discuss logistics for a third inter-Korean summit. Moon and Kim agreed during their initial April 27 summit to meet again in the North Korean capital in the fall, but a South Korean official said the location will be one of the topics during Monday’s talks.

The leaders also held a surprise meeting in Panmunjom in May, but that was largely an effort to revive plans for the unprecedented U.S.-North Korean summit.

“We expect the date, venue and size of the South Korean delegation to be agreed on during the high-level talks tomorrow in light of the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration,” presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told reporters on Sunday.

Stifling sanctions

The preparations come as the North stepped up its demands that the U.S. ease punishing economic sanctions and move toward declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War in return for denuclearization efforts.

The North Korean propaganda website Uriminzokkiri posted an article Sunday that blamed the South for a lack of progress in improving relations, accusing it of having a “blind obedience” to the U.S.-led sanctions.

Trump and his administration have insisted that the tough sanctions will remain in place until the North agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, leaving the two sides at loggerheads after the initial euphoria over the high-profile June 12 Singapore summit.

Pyongyang has pointedly declined to criticize Trump but has turned its ire on other senior U.S. officials. The state-run Korean Central News Agency last week accused the administration of ignoring its goodwill measures by intensifying pressure and refusing to ease sanctions or declare a formal end to the war to replace the 1953 armistice.

Trump has maintained his optimism about the process, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insists that progress is being made, although he has provided no details.

But national security adviser John Bolton signaled the administration’s growing frustration, saying last week that North Korea “has not taken the steps we feel are necessary to denuclearize.”

Middle man

Caught in the middle, South Korea has maintained its parallel efforts to improve relations with the North while balancing the need to avoid violating the sanctions itself and to keep up a united front with longtime ally Washington.

“I think that the two Koreas are trying to move forward with improving relations despite U.S. issues,” Catherine Dill, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said in an email.

“However, South Korea obviously is constrained by needing to manage its complex relationship with the U.S., as well as its domestic interests,” she said. “South Korea cannot make significant progress unless it is willing to depart from the current structure of the U.S.-[South Korean] relationship.”

Underscoring the challenges, South Korea’s Customs Service has acknowledged that 35,000 tons of North Korean coal and pig iron worth nearly $6 million illegally entered its ports last year, possibly in violation of U.N. sanctions banning mineral exports from the North.

Preliminary results from a 10-month investigation show that three South Korean companies forged documents and shipped the cargo via Russia to disguise its origin, the agency said Friday.

The diplomatic gains that began with North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics have been a victory for Moon, a former human rights attorney and the son of North Korean refugees.

He took office last year promising to restore relations with the rival nation but was forced to take a hard line as the North test-fired several missiles and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. Fears of a new war rose while the North honed its weapons programs and engaged in a fierce war of words with Trump.

The two Koreas have held several rounds of high-level talks and launched joint initiatives with sports and cultural exchanges as well as efforts to improve infrastructure in the impoverished communist nation.

The South also has said it plans to scale back the number of guard posts and withdraw some military equipment along the heavily fortified border that divides the peninsula.

That’s in addition to Trump’s decision to suspend joint military exercises, which was seen as a concession to the North since it considers the drills rehearsals for an invasion and has long demanded that they end.

War games

As a direct result, the allies called off a major computer-simulated drill known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian that’s usually conducted in August.

South Korea and the U.S. maintain their alliance is stronger than ever. But experts have cautioned that the North may be playing the long game with hopes of eventually breaking them up.

Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean defector and human rights activist, expressed concern that Moon’s government is letting down its guard too soon.

“They’re progressively weakening their state of readiness,” he said Saturday during a forum organized by the humanitarian group Teach North Korean Refugees. “All these things, I believe, are raising the risks for national security.”

Kang, who escaped after spending a decade in a North Korean concentration camp, said Kim’s regime may eventually agree to give up its nuclear weapons but will likely maintain the ability to restart the programs.

The North could then argue the U.S. should remove its 28,500 troops and move to assert control over the divided peninsula, he added.

“They might get rid of their nuclear weapons, but they won’t do it without a price,” he said.

Twitter: @kimgamel

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