South Korea Makes First Move, Offers Exchanges With North Korea

  • Moon proposes military, humanitarian talks with Kim’s regime
  • Pyongyang has played down prospects for improving relations

North Korea Isn't Backing Down

South Korea proposed resuming some military and humanitarian exchanges with North Korea as President Moon Jae-in seeks to follow through on campaign pledges to pursue dialogue with Kim Jong Un. 

The Defense Ministry offered talks with Pyongyang counterparts Monday, while the National Red Cross floated reunion events for families split by decades of hostilities. The announcements came after North Korea signaled a willingness to consider Moon’s overtures, despite voicing skepticism about the prospects for a breakthrough.

Moon Jae-in

Photographer: Yao Qilin/Pool via Bloomberg

The South Korean president, who took office May 10, is looking to ease tensions over Kim’s pursuit of a nuclear missile capable of striking the U.S., Seoul’s primary security ally. During a speech in the capital of a reunited Germany this month, Moon repeated his openness to direct talks with the North Korean leader on everything from weapons programs to outright peace.

Seoul’s olive branch comes as U.S. President Donald Trump signals frustration with the pace of efforts by China, North Korea’s long-time ally and top trading partner, to pressure Kim back to the bargaining table. The stakes have risen for Trump after North Korea’s first successful test July 4 of a missile that could reach Alaska, if not continental America.

Moon had previously offered to meet Kim “anytime, anywhere,” but said such negotiations would only be possible under the right circumstances. Monday’s proposals in Seoul demonstrated a willingness to make the first move. 

Read More: Here Are the Options for Dealing With North Korea

Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk told a briefing that South Korea proposed meeting Friday at the border village of Panmunjom, with the aim of suspending “all hostility against each other that escalates tensions at the military demarcation line.” Suh said he expected a “positive response” to the idea, without elaborating on what he meant by hostility.

Hwasong-14 launch on July 4.

Photographer: KCNA/AFP via Getty Images

Separately, the Red Cross raised the possibility of a meeting with its North Korean counterpart on Aug. 1 to discuss possible family reunions to coincide with shared holidays Oct. 4.

North Korea didn’t immediately respond to the latest offers. On Saturday, its official Rodong Sinmun newspaper criticized Moon’s approach as a “series of sleep-talking sophistries that create even greater hurdles” to talks.

Still, the paper expressed “relief” that Moon has signaled a departure from the policies of his conservative predecessors. While humanitarian exchanges couldn’t relieve the threat of war, North Korea never supported the suspension of “inter-Korean sporting events or joint projects for human rights, aimed at removing sadness of the nation’s division,” it said.

Twin Suspensions

China has resisted U.S. calls for tougher sanctions, which it fears could destabilize Kim’s regime. Beijing has been joined by Moscow in its “suspension-for-suspension” proposal, in which North Korea suspends weapons tests while South Korea and the U.S. defer further large-scale military exercises.

Seoul and Pyongyang remain far apart on the prospects of an eventual peace deal. The Rodong Sinmun said a “fundamental shift” in policy was needed to reassure North Korea of Moon’s intentions. Meanwhile, Moon has said peace would require the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

In his so-called Korean Peninsula Peace Initiative, Moon suggested the countries could one day connect their economies, railways and pipelines. He said now was North Korea’s last best chance to change direction.

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