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(News Focus) Inter-Korean relations in limbo despite end of allies' joint drill

North Korea 06:00 August 21, 2019

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Aug. 21 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is expected to keep tensions with South Korea high even after the end of the South's joint military exercise with the United States as Pyongyang wants to use inter-Korean tensions to extract concessions from the U.S. in nuclear talks, experts said.

The communist regime has significantly ramped up pressure on Seoul since late July over the allies' combined exercise, saying it won't talk with the South again and even denouncing President Moon Jae-in as an "impudent guy" and "funny man."

That represented unusually harsh criticism for a leader with whom Kim Jong-un held three summits and pledged to work together for peace and reconciliation, even though Pyongyang has long denounced such maneuvers as an invasion rehearsal.

The North has also conducted a total of six rounds of projectile launches in less than three weeks in a demonstration of new weapons capabilities in what the regime called a "solemn warning" against the South Korea-U.S. military exercise.

Tuesday's conclusion of the joint exercise raised hope for improvements in inter-Korean ties, but experts say such immediate detente is unlikely.

"If they really didn't care about Seoul, they wouldn't bother slamming it or increasing the level of criticism. The fact that Pyongyang is raising the level of criticism reflects that they want something desperately," Lim Eul-chul of the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University said.

The North wants Seoul to play a bigger role in persuading the U.S. in nuclear talks, he said.

In this file photo, taken on June 30, 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) walks with U.S. President Donald Trump (C) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in toward the northern side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, after holding talks with Trump at the Freedom House on the village's southern side. (Yonhap)

The near-daily criticism came as North Korea and the U.S. are widely expected to resume their working-level nuclear talks as agreed when U.S. President Donald Trump and the North's Kim held a surprise meeting at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom on June 30.

Though the talks have not taken place yet, Trump said earlier this month that Kim sent him a letter of apology for the North's latest missile launches and expressed willingness to resume talks "as soon as" the allies' exercise is over.

On Tuesday, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun arrived in Seoul, fanning speculation that the two countries could finally restart their negotiations.

"The North seems to have decided to deal with the U.S. first before handling inter-Korean affairs, concluding that it won't be able to establish inter-Korean relations the way it wants unless there is progress in North Korea-U.S. relations," Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, said in a recent report.

A prolonged stalemate in nuclear talks has taken a toll on inter-Korean relations as sanctions are standing in the way of Seoul's push to expand and advance various cross-border projects.

Seoul believes that active cross-border exchanges can help advance inter-Korean relations and facilitate the resumption of talks between the North and the U.S., but Washington has opposed any full-blown inter-Korean economic cooperation for fear that it could undermine the global sanctions regime against Pyongyang.

South Korea has offered to provide 50,000 tons of rice to the North in an apparent effort to boost the cross-border reconciliatory mood, but Pyongyang has even turned down that offer, citing the allies' military exercise.

Meanwhile, North Korea has been strengthening its relations with China and Russia.

Last week, Kim Su-gil, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, held talks with China's top officials, including Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, in Beijing.

Russian Vice Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov also visited Pyongyang last week and held talks with the North's First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, who has played a key role in Pyongyang's negotiations with Washington.

North Korea has been using propaganda outlets to raise anti-Japan sentiment in the South, Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said, "calculating that a diplomatically isolated Seoul will be more subject to Pyongyang's coercion."

Experts say South Korea should continue efforts to help the U.S. and North Korea push forward their nuclear talks despite the North's criticism.

"When they say they won't talk with Seoul again, we shouldn't take it at face value," the professor Lim said.

Cho said the government should keep various discussion channels to maintain a trust-based relationship with the North.

"South Korea's role is necessary at a time when mistrust still exists between North Korea and the U.S.," he said, urging Seoul to take part in drawing up possible corresponding measures for the North's denuclearization steps.

scaaet@yna.co.kr
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