by Thomas Walkom
North Korea’s peace overtures to the U.S. are welcome news. The prospect of talks is almost always better than the prospect of war.
But the proposed negotiations, however useful, are unlikely to result in North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un giving up his nuclear weapons.
Kim made his offer of talks Monday to a visiting delegation of senior South Korean officials. It was his latest move in a strategy that began in January with his surprise decision to fully participate in the Southís Winter Olympics.
That put his U.S. adversaries off-balance. They were further wrong-footed when Kim sent his trusted sister to the Games bearing an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to meet and talk.
Kimís offer this week to engage in talks aimed at the “denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula” is his latest surprise.
Pyongyang “would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North were eliminated and its security guaranteed,” the South Korean delegation reported him as saying.
The Americans were unusually optimistic. Late Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump told a visiting delegation from South Korea that he would be willing to meet Kim face to face.
But the Americans also know from past experience that North Koreaís language is very specific.
When the North talks of eliminating the military threat to its regime, it means upending the alliance between the U.S., South Korea and Japan.
At the very least, the North would demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.
But it could also logically argue that U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam pose a threat to Pyongyang.
As for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the North has said before that this would require more than Pyongyang giving up its atomic weapons. It would also require the U.S. to withdraw its nuclear protection from South Korea and Japan.
In short, Kim’s offer is hardly groundbreaking. Politically, it would be almost impossible for the U.S. to meet his conditions for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Essentially, the Americans would have to withdraw militarily from the Asia-Pacific region.
Even Trump, who briefly flirted with the idea of leaving Japan and South Korea to their own devices, is unlikely to do that.
As well, Kim is unlikely to easily give up the nuclear weapons he spent so much time and effort acquiring. To do so would make him look weak, a luxury that leaders of despotic regimes can rarely afford.
What then is Kim up to?
At one level, his aim is make mischief. His new reasonableness contrasts starkly with Trumpís habitual bluster. It also draws attention to the rift between the U.S. and South Korea over the usefulness of talks.
Moon was elected president on a promise to improve relations with the North. Now Kim has given him a chance to fulfil that pledge.
He also has alarmed those in Japan who were already worried about the U.S. commitment to that
At another level, he is trying to chip away at the economic sanctions aimed at the North. Moon insists that South Korea will not ease sanctions. But he is under pressure to do just that.
In particular, he is under pressure to keep a campaign promise to reopen the Kaesong industrial zone – an area in the North where Northerners worked in factories owned by South Korean businesses.
Still, there are benefits to South Korea and the world from Kimís self-serving peace gambit. The benefit to the South is that talks offer the only chance to repair relations between two countries that were arbitrarily separated at the end of the Second World War by Cold War politics.
The benefit to the rest of us is that as long as talks are possible, the U.S. is unlikely to risk a war with nuclear-armed North Korea.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services