Will Kim’s sister’s olive branch to Seoul herald a four-nation summit with US, China at the Beijing Winter Olympics?
- Analysts say the powerful Kim Yo-jong is floating a trial balloon to see if Pyongyang can resume dialogue with Washington through Seoul
- South Korean leader Moon Jae-in is keen on a summit between the Koreas, the US, and China as part of his reunification goal
They based their assessment on comments made on Saturday by Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, when she made clear her support for a formal end to the Korean war and a fresh inter-Korean summit if Seoul treated Pyongyang with “impartiality” and mutual respect.
Moon had earlier suggested the two Koreas – along with the US, which supported the South, and China, which backed the North – get together and declare an end to the conflict, possibly at the Beijing Winter Olympics, which will be held from February 4-20 next year.
However, Kim said such a declaration would be conditional upon the South abandoning “hostile policies” and “double-dealing standards” against the North, which analysts saw as ambiguous conditions that could be puzzling to Seoul.
Yang said Pyongyang could be “seeking to give a boon to Beijing’s efforts to stage a successful Olympics by giving it a chance for a political stunt there – a summit of leaders of the four countries, including the two Koreas, the US and China”.
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But North Korea has been barred from taking part in the Winter Olympics by the International Olympic Committee, after Pyongyang skipped this year’s Tokyo Games over fears its athletes might contract Covid-19.
Shin Beom-chul of the Research Institute for Economy and Society in Seoul said even if North Korea was unable to participate as a country, North Korean athletes might take part, and there was the possibility of an inter-Korean summit taking place in Beijing during the Games.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said he believed “China wants the two Koreas to hold a summit on the sidelines of the Beijing Olympics and move toward reconciliation and cooperation”.
On Monday, Moon’s top spokesman Park Soo-hyun welcomed Kim’s statements, but with a note of caution.
“We are not rushing to realise an inter-Korean summit for the improvement of inter-Korean ties. We are cautiously and thoroughly looking into what would happen to relations between the North and the United States as well.”
Park Soo-hyun’s comments reflect Seoul’s recognition that Washington is likely to have a lukewarm reaction to a four-way meeting on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics, as well as a declaration of an end to the Korean war.
Professor Park Won-gon of Ewha Womans University’s North Korea department said the recent spate of statements from Pyongyang reflected that it was gravitating towards acceptance of Moon’s offer, but Washington would consider the announcement of a formal end to the war “premature”.
“The US believes an end-of-war declaration should be used as a card to push the North to move toward denuclearisation,” he said.
The South Korean president, though, is looking to make progress on reunification before his term ends next year. Last week, he said the Korean war declaration could serve as an opener to negotiations on replacing the armistice with a peace treaty, and that it should proceed alongside diplomatic discussions over the denuclearisation of the North.
Moon added that this would not alter the legal status of the 28,500 US troops stationed in the country, or undermine Seoul’s alliance with Washington.
Rubbing shoulders with the leaders of the two superpowers and the South would help Kim Jong-un score political points in the eyes of the world, Park said. “It would also serve as a publicity stunt for local audiences, as Pyongyang would tell its people that the war is over and the North won.”
The North had purposefully made its conditions ambiguous, he pointed out, as this left it with “a lot of room to arbitrarily decide whether the South complies with them” and then “cut ties again at its whim”.
“The first test will be to see whether the North would come to the table with the South for substantive talks,” Park said.
Ultimately, he added, “the North has found this is a game where it has nothing to lose no matter how it ends”.
Choi Kang, vice-president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the North was engaging in a “charm offensive” as part of its long-standing efforts to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea.
“What the North wants is that future negotiations with the US should be premised on Washington accepting it as a nuclear-armed state,” Choi said.