SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – On both sides of the world’s most heavily armed border, ceremonies on Thursday will mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of a war that has killed and injured millions, wiping large parts of the Korean peninsula left and technically still going on.
This anniversary can be particularly bitter for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had hoped that an unprecedented swirl of engagement and diplomacy between the rivals over the past two years could fundamentally change their relationship. Amid renewed threats of violence from Pyongyang, Moon’s ambitious engagement plans are rapidly fading.
North Korea has shown mixed signals in recent days. In a fit of symbolic rage, it blew up an empty liaison office with the South last week. But this week, it seemed to be changing speed by suspending alleged plans to take unspecified retaliatory measures against South Korea.
Whatever the intentions of the North, the promising wave of diplomacy where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met multiple times with American, Chinese and South Korean leaders in a high stakes game to find a disarmament deal for help has been replaced by a revival of ideological warfare.
Seoul is now desperate to prevent relationships from going into crisis, but it also seems to be failing in how this should be done.
North Korea threatened to renounce a military deal last week to ease tensions, and condemned the South for lack of progress in bilateral cooperation and for not holding back activists from pushing the pamphlets against Pyongyang across the border .
The recent moves by the North follow months of frustration over Seoul’s reluctance to face US-led sanctions against the nuclear weapons program and resume inter-Korean economic projects.
Moon has proposed joint anti-virus efforts against COVID-19 and offered to send humanitarian aid, but Kim is unlikely to be satisfied as he struggles to cope with the economy, which has been paralyzed by sanctions and a pandemic that is the main exchange with China ally of the North, impedes to keep alive. and economic lifeline.
The North may want a South Korean commitment to resume operations in a jointly shuttered factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, where the liaison office was located, or South Korean travel to the Diamond Mountain resort in the north to resume. But Seoul cannot take such steps without rattling the international sanctions regime against the North and harming the South Korean alliance with Washington, which is struggling.
“South Korea doesn’t have many options,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at South Korean university who previously led a think tank attached to Seoul’s chief spy agent.
“We are the same Korean people, but also (war) enemies. Achieving reconciliation and cooperation between the Koreas is not as easy as you may think. ‘
Moon, the son of war refugees from North Korea who preach that the South must make international efforts to tackle the North, has been credited with coordinating diplomatic pressure to resolve the nuclear impasse. His envoys shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington to help set up the first meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump in Singapore in June 2018.
But he was criticized for the overly optimistic misinterpretation of Pyongyang’s signals. Seoul ran into credibility issues when it became clear during negotiations that Kim had no intention of easily getting rid of the nuclear bombs he probably sees as his strongest survival guarantee.
While Moon insisted that advances in inter-Korean relations could help create nuclear breakthroughs between Pyongyang and Washington, the north in Seoul doesn’t seem to see much value if the south fails to squeeze concessions from Washington on behalf of Pyongyang .
It remains to be seen whether Kim’s decision this week to overturn his alleged decision on an unspecified military action has implications for the North’s plan to resume the propaganda war.
If Kim opts for military action, it could be a resumption of military exercises or an order to allow ships to deliberately cross the controversial Western maritime border between the Korea, which has experienced bloody skirmishes in the past. However, it is likely that each action will be measured in a way to avoid widespread retaliation by the U.S. and South Korean armies.
The North condemns Seoul over North Korean refugees in the South who are floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border, saying on Monday it printed 12 million of its own propaganda leaflets to be distributed across the South in what is its largest anti-Seoul folder campaign would ever be.
The North has a history of escalating provocations before moving away from the edge and offering diplomacy to pull concessions from the South.
During a provocative series of nuclear and missile tests in 2017, Kim and Trump exchanged crude insults and threats of nuclear destruction.
Tensions eased after Kim used the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea to initiate diplomacy with Moon and Trump.
Korean leaders met three times that year and made vague commitments to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula without describing when and how that would happen. They have also vowed to restart, if possible, South Korean trips to Diamond Mountain and activities at Kaesong Factory Park, hoping sanctions would be lifted.
Those projects remain suspended amid stalled negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, which started to implode after last year’s second Kim-Trump meeting in Vietnam, where Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanction rejection in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
It would take major concessions for the Moon government to save its diplomacy with the north, said Hong Min, an analyst with the Seoul Institute for National Unification. Suspending the summer military exercises with the United States in South Korea and legally punishing anti-Pyongyang activists for leaflets, which will spark debates about freedom of speech in the South, would hardly interest the North.
Others wonder if recent diplomacy is worth saving amid declining denuclearization prospects.
“South Korea needs to rapidly shift its focus from developing inter-Korean relations to managing inter-Korean hostilities,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “If North Korea makes a hard blow (in the south), we also need to respond severely to make them realize that even if inter-Korean relations become hostile, they will suffer.”
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