The Two Koreas Talk: Time for Thanksgiving?

Whenever North Korea heads to the negotiating table one remembers the traditional description of a second marriage: the triumph of hope over experience. We’ve been here before. Or, more accurately, the two Koreas have.

Still, as Winston Churchill famously said, better to jaw-jaw than war-war. The last Korean conflict left millions of casualties and refugees. Even a minor league war could be catastrophic.

Nevertheless, the Republic of Korea should have no illusions about the latest negotiations, scheduled for America’s Thanksgiving. Nothing much is likely to emerge from that gathering. And nothing that emerges is likely to survive very long.

Diplomatic dialogue requires two parties. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea prefers a monologue. Kim Jong-un is most concerned about preserving his rule.

To the good, he evinces no suicidal impulses. The Kims always have preferred their virgins in this world. And despite the regime’s consistent rhetoric about destroying enemies near and far, nothing suggests Pyongyang’s leadership actually believes the DPRK to be capable of defeating Seoul backed by America.

However, Kim suffers no liberal sentimentality. Over the last four years his government has executed some 400 officials, including his uncle.

In any talks with the ROK humanitarian concerns will never be more than a gloss for the DPRK. Thus, Seoul’s objectives also should be eminently practical.

Like last August. The South restarted propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ after two of its soldiers were injured by land mines. This triggered a surprisingly ferocious response from the North. The two stepped back from confrontation and agreed in principle to further discussions to reduce tensions. The latest meeting is supposed to help set such talks in motion.

The North almost certainly hopes to persuade the ROK to restart economic aid and investment suspended in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship and bombardment of a South Korean island. While there’s nothing in principle wrong with Seoul attempting to buy good behavior, so far the DPRK never seems to stay bought.

The ROK must decide what it most desires out of Pyongyang. One goal should be continuing dialogue, even if largely inconsequential. In general, North Korea has proved less likely to provoke militarily while engaged diplomatically.

A more substantive objective for South Korea should be to lessen the North’s conventional threat. North Korea’s military is unsophisticated, but its advanced positioning puts Seoul at risk. ROK aid and trade should only follow reduction in the military threat to the South’s industrial, political, and population heart.

To test Pyongyang’s interest, the Park government should indicate that North Korean flexibility would open up topics heretofore off-limits. For instance, reduce the security threat to the ROK and Seoul would consider limiting or eliminating joint military exercises with the U.S., and even America’s troop presence. The U.S. should offer its full endorsement for the talks and indicate its readiness to step forward diplomatically and back militarily.

While little that Pyongyang says can be accepted at face value even paranoids have enemies. America’s propensity for regime change likely unsettles the North. Reducing the threat environment facing the DPRK would offer a good test of the latter’s intentions.

Moreover, Seoul should use the prospect of talks with the North to intensify its dialogue with China. Beijing appears to be increasingly unsettled over the misbegotten behavior of its erstwhile ally.

Nevertheless, the People’s Republic of China has resisted applying more pressure, instead urging the U.S. to engage the North and reduce the North’s insecurities. Following the Chinese script would allow the ROK to request an extra push from Beijing, asking what would be necessary to involve China more directly in resolving the “North Korea problem.”

As I point out in National Interest: “All of this goes well beyond the working-level discussions planned for Thursday. But Seoul should attempt to turn the negotiations into something more substantive and meaningful. That would be something for which all of us could give thanks.”