SEOUL, South Korea — Spring’s threats of nuclear war have given way to a summer of mini-breakthroughs on the Korean Peninsula. But scratch the surface and Pyongyang’s charm offensive seems more about money than any great leap forward in diplomacy.
North Korea’s recent string of concessions, including Friday’s restoration of a cross-border military hotline, simply puts the rival Koreas closer to where they were several years ago, before North Korean attacks, atomic and missile tests, and the warnings in March and April of nuclear and missile strikes.
And despite hope that the Koreas will soon resume various languishing co-operative projects, North Korea has shown no willingness to temper a nuclear weapons drive opposed by South Korea, the United States and the United Nations.
Nuclear talks are the goal, but neither Washington nor Pyongyang will make compromises that could smooth the way for their resumption. Pyongyang insists that it be recognized in any future disarmament negotiations as an undisputed nuclear power, something Washington refuses to do. Many also suspect that North Korea’s push for the so-called six-party disarmament talks after five years of inactivity is merely a gambit to trade empty nuclear promises for aid.
So while the generally mellowing atmosphere between the Koreas is far preferable to threats of war, the larger inability to settle the nuclear crisis and forge better ties between Washington and Pyongyang means that the possibility of provocations and another plunge in ties remains.
The recent optimism, albeit guarded, is a testament to the terrible state of inter-Korean relations. Whereas tangible diplomatic and security accords were once seen as the measure of a breakthrough, a simple easing of tension is now greeted as progress.
This spring’s unexpectedly intense warlike rhetoric and defiant moves by new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may even have prompted pangs of nostalgia in Seoul for his father, the late dictator Kim Jong Il. His 17-year rule at least contained some predictability as he alternated provocations with flashes of charm intended to win aid.
Now that Pyongyang’s rhetorical firestorm has died down, that ancient pattern of brinkmanship appears to be playing out again.
"This is about the cash flow," Stephan Haggard, a North Korea specialist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, wrote recently about Pyongyang’s decision to start "making nice" with Seoul.
The Koreas are in talks to resume operations at a jointly run factory park in the North Korean border city of Kaesong. Before Pyongyang pulled out its 53,000 workers in April, the plant brought the poor country a rare legitimate stream of foreign currency.
The countries also plan reunions later this month of families divided by the Korean War, and Pyongyang has proposed talks on restarting lucrative, jointly run tours to the North Korean resort of Diamond Mountain, called Kumgang in Korean.
These new developments can be seen as long-overdue gestures that ultimately benefit Pyongyang. "From North Korea’s perspective, family reunions are costless while reopening Kaesong and Kumgang is a big win," Haggard said.
No matter how relaxed things get between the Koreas, discord still churns between Washington and Pyongyang.
Besides the moribund six-party nuclear talks, there’s last year’s U.S.-North Korean food-for-nuclear-freeze deal, which soon collapsed after Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket seen as a cover for a banned missile test. The North followed another rocket test in December with a February nuclear test. Subsequent U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang and annual U.S.-South Korean military drills prompted the weeks-long torrent of threats from the North — and a fierce South Korean response — that has only recently eased.
Stung by last year’s diplomatic failure, Washington now sets a high bar for more nuclear talks, demanding Pyongyang first take concrete steps to demonstrate its disarmament commitment.
Those prospects aren’t good, and U.S. diplomats have been less focused on seeking direct talks with the Kim government than on building consensus among the other six-party nations to increase pressure on Pyongyang. This week, the top U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, Glyn Davies, will be travelling to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo to continue that effort.
The United States sees China, in particular, as the key to getting North Korea to change. Although Beijing has become more critical of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, it remains reluctant to abandon its troublesome ally.
Washington and Seoul also remember that Pyongyang is pressing ahead with its nuclear and missile programs, even as it steps up diplomacy.
Analysis of recent commercial satellite photos shows Pyongyang may be doubling the size of its uranium enrichment plant and expanding its main rocket launch site. North Korea was also caught in July attempting secretly to ship old fighter jets and missiles from Cuba via the Panama Canal.
Last month, Pyongyang snubbed Washington by withdrawing its invitation to a U.S. envoy to visit the country to discuss the release of a detained American. Pyongyang cited the alleged participation of U.S. nuclear-capable bombers in recent U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
In the past week, perhaps intensifying the snub, the North allowed former NBA star Dennis Rodman to visit for a vacation with Kim Jong Un, the second trip to Pyongyang by Rodman this year. Rodman left North Korea on Saturday, praising Kim and hurling profanity at the Obama administration.
The easing tensions may signal a new policy approach in Pyongyang, Joseph DeTrani, a former North Korea specialist for the U.S. government, wrote recently. But improvements could be reversed if, as many suspect, North Korea stages more provocations in coming months.
"This has been our experience in working with North Korea — periods of optimism, only to be dashed by another missile launch or nuclear test," he said.
— The Associated Press