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North Korea’s Overture Raises Hopes, but Huge Obstacles Loom

While most South Koreans today favor dialogue and peaceful accommodation with North Korea, many also fear that hastily engaging and granting Pyongyang economic concessions would throw a lifeline to Mr. Kim just as sanctions are squeezing it.

In his New Year’s Day speech, Mr. Kim offered to send an Olympic delegation to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month. But he also boasted that his country was now a nuclear power capable of thwarting a United States-led war on the peninsula, and he urged the South to abandon Washington’s campaign for sanctions and to work with “fellow countrymen” for peace — an opening Mr. Moon seized on.

“The Pyeongchang Olympics and the Paralympics there will become a clarion of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Moon said on Wednesday, the day Mr. Kim also restored a cross-border telephone hotline that could facilitate such negotiations. “We must move through the crisis and toward peace like an icebreaker.”

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A factory in the industrial city of Chongjin, on North Korea’s northeast coast. Economic sanctions appear to be squeezing the country. Credit Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

South Koreans have grown increasingly nervous over the past year about Mr. Kim’s nuclear brinkmanship. But they have also begun questioning the implications of their alliance with a Washington led by an often unpredictable Mr. Trump, who has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and this week talked of his power to wage nuclear war against Mr. Kim.

Mr. Moon insists that dialogue has become more urgent than ever because the South would bear the brunt of any war on the peninsula. South Korean officials privately say that the next several months may be the only opportunity to use negotiations to halt the North’s nuclear weapons program before it acquires a functional intercontinental ballistic missile.

While many South Koreans support a peaceful resolution to the tensions, many also question Mr. Moon’s approach — and Mr. Kim’s sincerity.

Analysts say Mr. Kim’s strategy is to make his nuclear weapons a fait accompli, while seeking a way to weaken the choking sanctions.

“In 2018, North Korea will likely launch an aggressive dialogue and peace offense and use the improvement of ties with the South to head off the sanctions and pressure,” the South’s government-run Korea Institute for National Unification said in an analysis of Mr. Kim’s New Year’s speech. “It is using the Pyeongchang Olympics to start to implement its approach.”

In his New Year’s speech, Mr. Kim acknowledged his country faced “the harshest-ever challenges” because of the sanctions. And the Olympics offered an opening.

“Kim Jong-un knew that South Korea was desperate for the North to join the Pyeongchang Olympics and resume inter-Korean dialogue,” Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, said in a Facebook post. “Recognizing the South’s weakness, he is using it to try to undermine the South’s alliance with Washington, drawing it away from the United States and using it as a shield against possible American military action.”

On Thursday, Mr. Trump tweeted that his tough approach was working, saying it brought North Korea to the negotiating table and that talks “are a good thing.”

Analysts say the North views its participation in the Olympic Games as a favor to Mr. Moon, and would most likely demand major concessions from Seoul.

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North Koreans demonstrated in Pyongyang on Thursday to show support for Kim Jong-un’s proposals to ease the country’s isolation. Credit Kim Won-Jin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Signaling his demands, Mr. Kim urged South Korea to stop annual joint military exercises with the United States. North Korea is also likely to demand that the South reopen a joint factory park in the North Korean town of Kaesong that the South shut down in 2016. It could also insist that South Korea lift a trade embargo it imposed in 2010 while accusing the North of torpedoing a South Korean navy ship.

Lifting such sanctions without clear North Korean movement toward denuclearization would open a crack in the American-led international campaign to pressure the North and cause a fissure in the alliance between Seoul and Washington. It would also prove unpopular in South Korea, especially among its older and conservative population, among whom the emotions over the ship’s sinking remain raw. The South is set to hold elections for mayors and governors in June.

North Korea has already signaled that tough negotiations loom.

Ri Son-kwon, who announced Mr. Kim’s decision to restore the cross-border hotline, was one of the hard-liners South Korean officials said were behind the torpedo attack in 2010. Since Mr. Kim took power, most of the North Korean negotiators who worked with the South during its Sunshine period have died or been purged or executed by Mr. Kim, including his uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

Video

A Phone Call and a Possible Thaw

North and South Korea have reopened a border hotline after nearly two years of radio silence.

Photo by Yonhap, via Associated Press. Watch in Times Video »

The hotline was kept open on Thursday. But the North has yet to inform the South when official talks can begin.

Mr. Moon has expressed a willingness to accommodate the North, suggesting that South Korea and the United States would consider postponing any joint military exercises until after the Olympics in February and the Paralympics in March. But the North wants a longer-term halt.

“Once the joint exercises resume in April, the South-North relations will chill again,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “There are reasons to believe that things will get much worse in the second half of the year.”

And South Koreans are mindful of Mr. Kim’s past behavior. In his New Year’s speech in 2016, Mr. Kim said he was willing to improve ties with the South. Several days later, the North conducted its fourth nuclear test. This year, Mr. Kim threatened to mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. He also called for an ability to launch an “immediate nuclear counterattack.”

If North Korea conducts more weapons tests, Mr. Cheong said, whatever thaw would be created by the North’s Olympic participation would prove to be only “temporary.”

Source: NYT > World

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