South Korea’s offer of talks with the North is the best option for resolving the nuclear issue
Threats and sanctions have not dissuaded North Korea from its weapons programme, and the international community remains divided, leaving direct dialogue as the only choice left
North Korea’s firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile should have spurred the world into action over the nation’s ever-expanding weapons arsenal. But more than two weeks later, the leaders of the countries most affected having met, there has only been inertia. Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, has understandably decided that doing nothing other than condemn is not an option, and has sought dialogue with Kim Jong-un’s regime to ease military tensions. Japan has objected, contending now is the time for pressure, not talks, but such an approach is flawed; the best hope for security lies in negotiations.
The inability of the international community to reach a consensus has been evident at meetings of the UN Security Council and on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. While all nations agree that the Korean peninsula should be denuclearized, they cannot decide on a common strategy. Russia blocked efforts by the council to impose tougher sanctions and sided with China in seeking a suspension of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes in return for the US and South Korea ending joint military exercises and construction of an anti-missile shield system. Moon, meeting US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Hamburg, ruled out the possibility of military action, but agreed to put “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.
The South Korean leader would seem to have had second thoughts. As an avowed pacifist, he wants a peaceful settlement of disputes and dialogue is the only viable route; he made that plain while campaigning for the presidency, which he won by a landslide in elections in May. By offering talks, initially at the border truce village of Panmunjom on Friday, he is enacting a strategy laid out on July 6 that seeks denuclearisation without North Korea’s collapse or regime change.
The four initial steps aim for a suspension of hostile activities along the demilitarised zone between the Koreas on July 27, a resumption of negotiations for inter-Korean cooperation, a new round of reunions of families separated by the Korean war on October 4 and an invitation to North Korea to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.
There is no certainty that Kim will accept such offers. The latest missile launch is a game-changer, possibly enabling a nuclear strike on the continental US if warheads have been miniaturised so that they can be attached to a rocket. The regime will not easily, if at all, give up its bombs or missiles. Years of threats and sanctions have not prevented their development. Moon, whose country would suffer most were conflict to break out, is putting forward the most viable option.