Pyongyang has dashed hopes that its recent willingness to restore communication links with Seoul would lead to a thaw in inter-Korean relations. It is now clear that the regime’s seemingly conciliatory gesture comes with a price to Seoul.
Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is pressing South Korean President Moon Jae-in to choose between improving relations with Pyongyang and conducting military exercises necessary to maintain allied combat readiness.
Hopes ran high on July 27, when Seoul and Pyongyang simultaneously announced the resumption of communication hotlines after a 13-month hiatus. North Korea media described the initiative positively, calling it “a big stride in restoring mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.”
Praising Pyongyang for resuming basic levels of communication was ironic given that it was the regime that severed all links last year, including senior-leader links between the Koreas, as well as military hotlines intended to defuse tense situations. Pyongyang accentuated the communications blackout by blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, which had been paid for by the Moon administration. At the time, Kim Yo-jong and other senior officials warned of further military action.
The July announcement, accompanied by revelations that the two Korean leaders had exchanged multiple letters this year, seemed propitious for improved relations. Media reports quoted South Korean officials saying that Seoul and Pyongyang were even contemplating a virtual summit meeting, though this was officially denied by the South Korean president’s office. Some experts predicted North Korea would now be willing to receive humanitarian aid, economic and COVID-19 medical assistance, and talk with Biden administration officials.
But less than a week later, Kim Yo-jong derided the optimistic interpretations as “premature hasty judgment.” She also warned Seoul that allowing the upcoming U.S.-South Korea Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises to take place would “seriously undermine” any potential for restoring inter-Korean trust.
In recent years, Kim Yo-jong has assumed the role of North Korea’s “bad cop,” hurling threatening invective against Moon’s administration. Last year, she demanded South Korea prevent pro-democracy groups from sending information into the closed regime. Seoul quickly capitulated by introducing legislation that criminalized such efforts in a move that was criticized by the U.S. Congress, the UN rapporteur for North Korean human rights and international human rights groups.
North Korea periodically offers a carrot to the overzealous South, but with strings attached so that the regime can threaten to yank it away if its demands aren't meant. Pyongyang strives to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States by appealing for Seoul to bilaterally solve peninsular issues without U.S. interference.
During the last four years, Washington and Seoul cancelled or scaled down numerous military exercises, first in response to a unilateral decision by President Trump in 2018 and subsequently due to COVID restrictions. There are growing concerns of the extent to which allied deterrence and defense capabilities have been degraded. Cancelling large-scale exercises also impedes South Korea’s ability to regain wartime operational control of its military, a major policy goal of President Moon.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, scheduled to begin on Aug. 12, has already been downgraded to a mere computer simulation without troops in the field. But Kim Yo-jong previously warned that even virtual military exercises risked the regime’s ire by crossing a “red line.”
North Korea is again testing Moon’s eagerness to make progress on his signature policy of improving the inter-Korean relationship, this time by sacrificing allied military exercises. With less than a year remaining in his term, Moon had vowed in January to try again to “achieve a major breakthrough in the stalled North Korea-U.S. talks and inter-Korean dialogue.”
But Moon should resist the siren calls, even from within his own administration and ruling party legislators, to cancel allied military exercises. The upcoming exercise should proceed and, when COVID conditions allow, the allies should resume military exercises with the same frequency and scope as before.
The Biden and Moon administrations should continue their efforts to restore dialogue and negotiations with Pyongyang, but not under duress of threats. Neither Washington nor Seoul has imposed conditions on resuming communications and should not acquiesce to North Korean demands for concessions simply to return to the table. Meanwhile, Washington and Seoul, along with Tokyo, should coordinate policies for any future denuclearization negotiations while concurrently planning potential responses to a North Korean return to provocative behavior.
Pyongyang’s draconian COVID isolation measures preclude in-person meetings for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, Washington and Seoul will remain waiting by the phone, uncertain of the timing or content of Pyongyang’s next call.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on August 10, 2021