North Korea Ties at Worst Point in Decades, South Korea Says

  • Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo says in Bloomberg interview
  • Rules out talks with Pyongyang unless willing to give up nukes

QuickTake: North Korea’s Nukes

North Korea relations have fallen to their worst point in decades and talks are off the table until Kim Jong Un’s regime is ready to give up its nuclear weapons, South Korea Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said in an interview.

“It’s been over 20 years since North Korea’s nuclear threats started, and tensions are at their worst,” Hong, who oversees policy on North Korea, said on Thursday in Seoul. “For the time being, the South Korean government’s stance is that the North should show a will to denuclearize,” he said. “That means any dialogue should be based upon denuclearization.”

Hong Yong-pyo on March 2.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The comments show how difficult it will be for China, North Korea’s biggest benefactor and ally, to restart a dialogue to ease tensions. South Korea and the U.S. have said they want Kim to commit to abandoning his nuclear program before heading back to the negotiating table after talks collapsed in 2009.

South Korea and Japan both rely on the U.S. to provide a “nuclear umbrella” to deter threats from North Korea. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed below the demarcation line on the Korean peninsula, which has been divided since Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung founded North Korea in 1948.

The U.S. and South Korea on Wednesday conducted joint military exercises involving fighter jets, prompting North Korea to threaten the “toughest counteractions.” President Donald Trump had vowed to deal with North Korea “very strongly” after its latest missile test in February.

To read about how China is getting frustrated with North Korea, click here.

South Korea is seeking more clarity on U.S. policies, Hong said. Trump’s administration had yet to appoint personnel to deal with Pyongyang or unveil a detailed strategy, he said, adding: “We still have to wait and see as its North Korea policies take shape.”

But since the U.S. and South Korea share a common objective of denuclearization in North Korea, “I believe that South Korea and the U.S. should make a concerted effort to achieve this goal,” he said.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s leaders are seeking to rein in Kim and halt American plans to deploy a missile-defense system known as Thaad in South Korea, in part on concerns that it will undermine China’s own security.

A flurry of diplomatic activity recently has yet to yield results. This week China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi met Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other officials at the White House to discuss regional issues. China also hosted North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil Song in Beijing, one of the highest level contacts in months.

That meeting came after a public rift between the allies, with North Korea accusing China of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” with a ban on coal imports.

On Thursday, Hong played down the spat while calling the sniping “unique.” China-North Korea ties have “never faltered” despite ups and downs, he said.

China Tensions

Tensions between China and North Korea increased after the murder of Kim Jong Nam -- the half-brother of Kim Jong Un -- in Malaysia last month. Malaysia has said the chemical weapon VX nerve agent was used in the killing, and charged two women for the crime this week. North Korea has identified the man as Kim Chol and says he died of a heart attack.

South Korean authorities have said Kim Jong Nam was under Chinese protection. In the interview, Hong said that the deceased man’s son is probably living in Macau and if he chose to defect, he would be welcomed to settle in South Korea like other North Korean defectors.

More than 30,000 people have defected to South Korea from North Korea since the peninsula was divided, Hong said. While the flow has slowed since 2010, defections by members of the isolated nation’s elite have increased, he said. Thae Yong Ho, a senior diplomat based in London, defected to South Korea last August in the most high profile case in recent years.

“The decrease in numbers is because Kim Jong Un has stepped up border controls,” Hong said. “In the past defections were mainly due to economic or food reasons, but these days they are defecting more for freedom and political reasons."

‘Not Easy’

South Korea’s suspended President Park Geun-hye has said that uniting the countries would bring an economic bonanza to the combined 75 million people on the peninsula through merging the capital and expertise of South Korea with the skilled labor force and natural resources of North Korea.

Yet how that would happen is unclear. China has propped up North Korea because it fears a collapse might prompt an influx of millions of refugees and potentially lead to a well-armed U.S. ally straddling its border. And some analysts have warned that a collapsing North Korea with atomic weapons would be more dangerous than a stable regime developing a nuclear arsenal.

While Hong sees talks as unlikely, his days in office may be numbered. Park, who has taken a hard line against North Korea, may be booted from office as early as this month when the Constitutional Court decides whether to approve an impeachment motion. Even if she stays, an election is due later this year.

Moon Jae-in, the front-runner to become South Korea’s next president, advocates dialogue along with sanctions to get North Korea to drop its nuclear aspirations.

Still, Hong cautioned that common ground remains hard to find.

“It’s not easy for both Koreas to meet for dialogue,” Hong said. “We’re not going to have dialogue for the sake of having a dialogue.”

— With assistance by Peter Pae

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