Negotiations between the DPRK and South Korea: Not a Tango for Three


On the 9th of January, ministerial negotiations between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea took place in Panmunjom. Both sides reached an agreement on the resumption of negotiations on a peace settlement and on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

“We suggested military negotiations to the North Korean side in order to prevent accidental confrontations, and we expressed our opinion about the necessity of restarting a dialogue on a peace settlement as quickly as possible, which includes denuclearisation,” – as was said by deputy minister for national reunification of the Republic of Korea Chun Hae-sung. 

The South Koreans emphasised that they spoke in favour of lowering tensions between the North and South and of productive cooperation. In this context, possibilities to reunite families that ended up on different sides of the border (after the war of 1950-1953) were discussed. 

In addition, the North Korean representatives declared that they are ready to send a “high-ranking delegation” to the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang. According to preliminary information, athletes and artists will perform at the games under the auspices of a cultural program.  
The day before the negotiations, a telephone conversation between representatives of Seoul and Pyongyang took place, during which the re-establishment of a communications hotline was discussed.

Conciliatory steps

The meeting place (Panmunjom) was not picked at random. In 1971, this is the place where a communications line was created. However, it does not function during conflict periods. The line was never fully destroyed, rather, the sides refused to use it (if we take into account that the countries have been separated for decades, there is a real problem with the transmission of correct information). Before current events, it was last used in February 2017, when the countries encountered trouble around the Kaesong industrial zone. Then, the initiative was taken by Pyongyang. 

This time, the government in Seoul has reacted with great enthusiasm to the first conciliatory steps from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. As an official representative of the Republic of Korea’s presidential administration commented, this is a movement “towards a situation in which communication will be possible at any time”.

The re-establishment of the line makes it possible to exchange data on current events (including economic data), and also lower the level of mutual ‘demonisation’, seeing as the countries are inhabited by the same people speaking the same language.

Enterprising Kim

Kim Jong Un’s new-years address did not leave many indifferent: he simultaneously called for a dialogue with South Korea and threatened the US with the nuclear button in case of American aggression.

The decision by the North Korean leader to restart negotiations at this time is related to the change of the strategic balance in the region. According to Kim Jong Un, the DPRK’s readiness to negotiate is proportional to the strengthening of the country’s nuclear power.

But the main message has a diplomatic character: Pyongyang is demonstrating that it can hold negotiations as an equal not just of Seoul, but of Washington as well.

We must note, that many were positive towards the decision to take part in the Olympics, including the Olympic Organisational Committee.

The US: a third wheel

Indeed, earlier US opinions about negotiations were negative. As the US permanent representative to the UN Nikki Haley declared, Washington “will not take any negotiations seriously if they do not have a bearing on the banning of all nuclear weapons in North Korea”. According to Haley, the Kim Jong Un regime is “reckless”.

Actually, the regime is not “reckless” for the US, but rather ‘inconvenient’. The DPRK in its current state will never be received positively in the US. President Donald Trump, having made a joke (or not?) about the size and functioning of the nuclear buttons, later declared that he “always believes in negotiations”, but that the US position on North Korea is “very tough”.  Trump did not exclude the possibility of having to conduct personal negotiations with the North Korean leader.

More radical suggestions of a boycott of the Olympics in the case of North Korean participation were aired by several Republicans (among which was Lindsey Graham).

The US’ unhappiness is easily explained: current events are going against the initial plan to devour and reformat North Korea into a format that is convenient for the White House. Now Pyongyang and Seoul are showing that the situation on the Korean peninsula could stabilize without American involvement. The Americans are nervous that bilateral contacts between the countries are literally being built before their eyes and while bypassing American representatives. What is more, the White House is taking this to be an attempt to disrupt the consensus between Washington and Seoul.

North Korea has gotten the right to have an opinion on many subjects thanks to its nuclear weapons. Whatever they might say of him, Kim Jong Un is now calmly talking with other leaders on an equal level without fear of his country becoming an American protectorate. What is more, if the need arises he can speak to the US directly.

And this, in turn, is telling of the loss of American positions in the Pacific region.

If we take the current nuclear capabilities of Pyongyang into account, the country has all opportunities to build a strategic partnership with the South Koreans on their own terms, not on those of the Americans. The goal of the strategy is not just mutual benefit, but also the lessening of the US presence on the Korean peninsula.

In the near future, the DPRK will emphasise whenever it can that they form one people with the DPRK. In turn, Seoul will, for the time being, affirm that it is ready to strengthen contacts (for example, the South Koreans have approved the participation of North Korean athletes in the Olympics).

Economic aspects

We should also note some economic aspects. Economists have already named the idea of cooperation between Pyongyang and Seoul to be positive, as this will lower the chance of a conflict and the resulting damage to the world economy. The main economist of DBS Group Holdings Ltd. in Singapore, Taimur Baig, noted in an interview that any good news about a rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang is “music to our ears”.

This will have a positive effect on the position of North Korea, which has rightly called the last UN sanctions an “act of war”.

Earlier, chairman of the South Korean Presidential Committee for Economic Cooperation with the North Son En Gil declared in an interview for the Korea Times that South Korean economic cooperation with Russia and China is having a positive effect on the solution of Pyongyang’s nuclear program and will facilitate the development of inter-Korean partnership. According to his predictions, economics will help make the DPRK “more open”. 

Translated from the Russian by V.A.V.