Well, things move fast sometimes. After Kim Jong-un’s new year address, the south has moved to welcome the opportunity for renewed talks to defuse tensions on the peninsula. The southern Yonhap news has been making some extremely positive noises about the move, with the presidential office hailing the move and urging swift steps to restart talks.
This is a further signal that President Moon Jae-in actually has some spine. It began with his recent call to reconsider (and potentially tear up) a semi-secret deal done between Japan and the previous conservative government concerning the sexual slavery of hundreds of thousands of Korean women during the Second World War. The Japanese have never made an official apology for the systemic organisation of what they called ‘comfort women’ by the Japanese army, with some – like Abe himself – insisting that all of them did so voluntarily. The Japanese have been keen to bury the issue once and for all and thought they had a deal . Not so now, and the Japanese are mightily displeased with Moon’s move.
This was actually an election promise from last year. So too was the offer to restart talks with the DPRK. Initially, the US responded to this effort by sending warships to the area and upping the military exercises in the south. The target was not so much the DPRK, China and Russia, but actually Moon himself. ‘Toe the line’, was the message. But Moon eventually returned to his theme, mentioning the Winter Olympics and his desire to see DPRK athletes there. These will take place in early February in PyeongChang. Not a bad move, since who can object to the Olympics? Of course, they are the banner under which more comprehensive talks can begin.
As for Kim Jong-un and his carefully worded and sober new year’s proposal for talks, this is also an an opportune time. The DPRK is now able to negotiate from a position of relative and greater strength in light of its nuclear development. And they know that Japanese-South Korean relations are at a low ebb. They also noticed that the USA had been systematically sidelined during Trump’s recent Asia tour. When Trump – the ‘master of the deal’ – offered to mediate between Vietnam and China, or between the Philippines and China concerning the South China Sea, he was politely ignored. Even Japan and South Korea, while giving Trump all of the due honours, refused to enter into any serious negotiations with him or his team. All of this is a clear signal that Asian countries realise that the USA is abandoning Asia, so they will forge on ahead without it. In this situation, both Kim and Moon know that they have room and opportunity to make an initial step to solving their own differences.
So when will the talks begin? The proposal is 9 January at Panmunjom, in the building where previous talks have been held.