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After the PyeongChang Winter Olympics: The U.S. Perspective
2018.02.14  Wednesday
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Jee-kwang Park
After the PyeongChang Winter Olympics: The U.S. Perspective

No. 2018-10 (February 14, 2018)
Park Jee Kwang (Research Fellow, the Sejong Institute)

It is no secret that the Moon administration has strived to draw North Korea to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in order to make a breakthrough in the strained inter-Korean relations. Their efforts brought about some positive reactions from the North – First Deputy Director Kim Yo-jong of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) visited Cheong Wa Dae as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy and she delivered Kim Jong-un’s personal message and letter to President Moon for an inter-Korean summit in the future. The South Korean government and the ruling party appears to carry on with their efforts to improve relations with the North after the Olympic Games, keeping this amicable atmosphere alive. These moves are likely to include efforts to mend ties between Pyongyang and Washington. When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea, the South Korean government attempted to improve the DPRK-U.S. relations which hit rock bottom.

It seems rather apparent to me of how Washington will react to such efforts from Seoul. Even before the North Korean envoy, Washington was well aware that the South Korean government intended to use the PyeongChang Olympics as a breakthrough for the derailed ties between Seoul and Pyongyang and expected that inter-Korean talks will be attempted after the PyeongChang Olympics along with North Korea’s approach to the U.S. for a talk.

Nonetheless, Washington considers North Korea’s participation in the Olympics and the offer of inter-Korean talks as North Korea’s attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. While the U.S. officials refrained from making comments of inter-Korean talks, indicating that these talks are of South Korea’s sovereign affairs which U.S. could not intervene, they clarified that Seoul should not reward North Korea financially to start inter-Korean talks or to have a reunion event of Korean families separated in North and South Korea. They point out that such deeds are in violation of the UN Security Council resolution that the South Korean government voted for. Especially, they argued in unison, that the South Korean government should not provide any financial concessions to North Korea, especially without informing the international community. That would break open the fissure in the international sanction regime against North Korea and cast a fatal blow to the international community’s credibility on the South Korean government. Moreover, some commented that it is desirable for the South Korean government to share information about the progress in dialogue with North Korea with its allies, especially with the U.S.

Recently, as it was reported that Vice President Pence made remarks, which leave the possibility of a “talk about talks” with North Korea, in his flight back to the U.S. after visiting South Korea. With this comment, some newspapers insist that the U.S. has changed its stance on the North Korea issues. Although it is unclear of how seriously we should take his private and casual comments, a pre-stage dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. is a not a far-fetched idea.

In fact, it is known that the U.S. State Department maintains several unofficial communication channels with North Korea including the so-called ‘New York channel.’ However, the fundamental premise of a serious DPRK-U.S. negotiations on the nuclear issues, which is not a simple dialogue as a point of contact or a “talk about talks”, is North Korea’s concrete and trustable measures of denuclearization. Washington’s consensus is that a real dialogue between the two begins when North Korea, at least, declares nuclear freeze and it is checked by an authoritative organization such as the IAEA. This is the common voice among Republicans, Democrats, and officials from the Congress and the administration. Without such measures for nuclear freeze, the Trump administration is extremely unlikely to lift sanctions on North Korea and will continue on with the maximum pressure strategy.

In regard to the ROK-U.S. joint military exercises scheduled in April, Washington believes that postponing again or canceling the exercise is not acceptable. Such thing will be detrimental to the ROK-U.S. alliance. Still, since the scope and details of the exercise have been adjusted every year, the exercise could be adjusted for this year as well. That is, the U.S. seems to have in mind that while it cannot accept the postponement or cancellation of the joint military drills, it could downsize it if South Korea wants. However, some security experts raised concerns regarding what the Moon administration is considering – leaving out the landing operation of the Marine Corps in the joint exercises. They feel that the U.S. has already prepared for this landing exercise and that it will appear “no good” if the landing operation, which North Korea keeps an eye on, is omitted in the joint military exercises.

Translator’s note: This is an unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.