[Editorial] Conditions for talks

The US has responded negatively to the South Korean government’s proposals to hold military and Red Cross talks with North Korea. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a briefing, “Any type of conditions that would have to be met are clearly far away from where we are now.” Asked about Trump’s reaction to the offers for talks, Spicer said, “Those comments came out of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and I would refer you back to them.” The US State and Defense departments reportedly also avoided comment on the proposals, telling reporters to ask the South Korean government. These reactions reflect Washington’s discontent with Seoul’s offers for talks with Pyongyang. They also indicate the US thinks it is not an appropriate time for talks, as it is seeking to strengthen sanctions and pressure on the North for test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile. A South Korean government official said Tuesday that there was little difference between Seoul and Washington regarding the offers for talks, but it is questionable whether the two sides are on the same page. “The offers did not mean that conditions are ripe for full-fledged talks,” the official said. “The talks we proposed will be the initial contact to ease tension.” There would be no reason to object to initial ice-breaking contacts. Dialogue could not be more desirable if it eases tension and helps reduce the North Korean threat. But its effectiveness is in doubt. The international community is currently moving toward sanctions and pressure, not dialogue. The US seeks to implement a secondary boycott that penalizes foreign companies trading with North Korea. Easing military pressure through talks amounts to pardoning the North for its provocations. The thing to bear in mind is that the more desperate Seoul looks to hold talks, the more vulnerable it can be to Pyongyang’s demands. North Korea has used dialogue as a chance to buy time to develop its nuclear program or receive economic assistance. If the South accepts the North’s demands just to keep dialogue going, conditions for talks on denuclearization will stray farther from where we are. The international community led by the US will not sit still if inter-Korean talks stand in the way without making progress. If Seoul is not careful in dealing with North Korea’s threats through talks, the discord with its allies may grow louder. In the worst case, the South may be excluded from international responses. The problem is that inter-Korean talks thus far have not been useful in easing tensions. Military talks in particular are worrisome. They are not urgent from a humanitarian viewpoint, compared to the Red Cross talks proposed to hold reunions of separated families. It is too early to offer military talks. Nevertheless, Moon has apparently taken the path to dialogue, though he has proclaimed his intention to seek dialogue simultaneously with sanctions and pressure. He is going for talks despite the North’s harsh criticism of the South and regardless of doubts about the usefulness of dialogue. Pyongyang is likely to make demands that may be too risky to accept. It has demanded the South and US not raise issue with its nukes and missiles, lift sanctions, suspend their joint military exercises and convert the cease-fire that halted the 1950-53 Korean War into a peace treaty. Undoubtedly the North will demand the US withdraw its troops from the South and also raise questions about the Korea-US alliance. At some point down the road of dialogue, the South will face a situation where it has to make difficult choices in order to keep talks going. Inter-Korean military talks have been held 49 times since 2000, but tensions have escalated rather than eased. That talks alone cannot bring peace is a historical lesson. The US and its allies should be united in imposing effective sanctions. It is undesirable for the Korea-US alliance to give the impression of being disunited over how to resolve the North’s threats. The Moon government must heed concerns about its rush for talks with the North.

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