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Zhao Minghao: After winter Olympics thaw, US should tread softly on Korea crisis


By Zhao Minghao    Source: Global Times    Published: 2018-2-28

Last week, Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers` Party of Korea visited South Korea and attended the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. He indicated that North Korea was quite willing to have talks with the US and claimed that inter-Korean relations and North Korea-US relations should develop simultaneously. As the PyeongChang Winter Olympics closed, people started to wonder whether senior officials from Washington and Pyongyang will sit down at the negotiating table.

The PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games demonstrate the importance of sports diplomacy once again. Although the US is not satisfied, the Moon Jae-in government of South Korea proactively reacted to North`s proposals to repair their bilateral relations. With the Blue House`s persuasion, Washington agreed to delay joint South Korea-US military exercises.

Most US strategists think that North Korea just took the Winter Olympics platform to launch a new round of charm offensive. Pyongyang aims to win more time for further nuclear and missile tests, break the international sanctions group led by the US, and drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

Top North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has invited Moon to visit Pyongyang. As in the past the South often offered massive aid to the North after inter-Korean summits, many Americans worry that the Moon government will likely further damage the effects of "maximum pressure" exerted by the Trump administration.

It seems that Pyongyang has taken the initiative through proactive actions and Washington is facing a dilemma: war or talks. On the one hand, because the US lacks sufficient support from allies, it is more difficult for Washington to make up its mind for military action. South Korea has made every effort to avoid the losses of thousands of lives and Tokyo is also worried about a devastating retaliation from Pyongyang.

On the other hand, Washington insists on denuclearization as the prerequisite for bilateral talks. To maintain its dominance on the Korean Peninsula issue, Washington in January invited ministers from 20 countries to Vancouver, Canada, increasing pressure on North Korea.

On February 23, the Trump administration announced a new round of sanctions on North Korea, just before the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The main objectives of the sanctions are shipping and trading companies. The US aims to shut down North Korea`s so-called illicit maritime smuggling activities to obtain oil and sell coal.

It is unacceptable if the US launches a military action against North Korea. To keep the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula after the Winter Olympics, international society needs to work hard to promote flexible direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang. The US and South Korea also should consider shortening joint military exercises to create favorable environment for talks. Changing the location of the exercises can also reduce the sense of insecurity that Pyongyang feels. Currently the inter-Korean military hotline on west coast has been reopened and it should help avoid bilateral misjudgments and conflicts in sensitive areas.

Recently the commander of the US Pacific Command Harry Harris, who was nominated by Trump to be ambassador to Australia, said that he thought that Kim Jong-un`s nuclear ambitions were to reunify the divided Korean Peninsula under his totalitarian government during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. Harris also said North Korea`s advancing nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs put "him in a position to blackmail the South and other countries in the region and us." Since the relationship between the US and North Korea is precarious now, the US` military officials should avoid such provocative words.

Although divisions inside the Trump administration still exist, there are inspiring signs that the US is willing to hold preliminary talks with North Korea. The White House needs a key figure who can deal with the Korean nuclear issue wholeheartedly. Preliminary talks are very important as they can break the frozen relationship and help know each other`s intentions. The bilateral representatives to the talks should be authorized and trusted by the top leaders.

Denuclearization remains the final goal but to achieve it, more steps are needed. Apart from the US and North Korea, other countries also need to help promote the talks.

The author is a visiting fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

Key Words: South Korea   winter Olympics   Zhao Minghao  

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