TOKYO — North Korea is starting off the year with a fresh diplomatic initiative aimed at wooing South Korea ahead of its hosting of next month’s Winter Olympics. But it’s sticking to a decidedly harsh — and familiar — message for President Donald Trump: back off and let Koreans solve their own problems.
North Korea’s state-run media have been hitting the “one Korean nation” theme hard since leader Kim Jong Un struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone toward Seoul in his New Year’s address. And as high-level negotiators from both sides met Tuesday for the first time in more than two years, the North amped up its anti-Washington, anti-Trump criticism.
It’s a tack North Korea has taken many times in the past. But it generally hasn’t gotten far.
The North’s hopes for reunification negotiations that favor its position while excluding or minimizing the role of the United States are a tough sell in the South, which has a strong military alliance with Washington, benefits tremendously from being a trusted and close trading partner with the U.S. and has good historical cause to be wary of the North’s bait-and-switch tactics.
With that backdrop, Tuesday’s talks were by design incremental and exploratory. It’s hard to imagine any major breakthroughs or policy shifts by the South on the biggest issues — denuclearization foremost among them — without U.S. consultations. So Washington probably didn’t have much to worry about.
The two Koreas agreed in a joint statement to hold future talks on reducing military tensions along their border and “actively cooperate” in the Olympics, with North Korea sending a delegation.
But the chief North Korean delegate complained bitterly about South Korean media reports that they had discussed the North’s nuclear disarmament. Those reports were far-fetched because “all of our state-of-the-art strategic weapons like atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles are targeting the United States, not our compatriots” in South Korea, Ri Son Gwon said.
As Tuesday’s meeting started, the North’s ruling party made a point of slamming Trump by name in its daily newspaper, calling his claim to have set the stage for the talks with his strong position on sanctions and pressure a “ridiculous sophism.”
“It is very deplorable to see the U.S. politicians boasting of their diplomatic failure as ‘diplomatic success,'” it said.
“North-south relations are an internal affair of the Korean nation,” the North’s official news agency said in a report on the eve of the talks that stressed how Koreans north and south must not allow outsiders’ “interference and tyranny” to keep the Korean nation divided.
In a separate article, it called Trump a “lunatic” and said the U.S. needs to accept North Korea is now a nuclear power.
As a first step after Kim’s speech, South Korea agreed to postpone military exercises with the U.S. until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics end. That paved the way for the negotiators to meet and discuss a proposal by Kim to send a delegation of officials, athletes and supporters to the Pyeongchang Olympics. They also talked about other bilateral matters.
While the North’s strategy of focusing on ethnic pride and unity is also a clear attempt at prying Washington and Seoul apart, it does have an emotional appeal that resonates on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone.
The Korean Peninsula was divided after it was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Splitting the Koreas along the 38th parallel was the idea of U.S. military planners to limit the influence of the Soviet Union and approved without a Korean presence at the 1945 Potsdam Conference.
The two sides fought the Korean War in 1950-53, with China and the Soviet Union supporting North Korea and U.S.-led United Nations forces backing the South. The war ended with a truce, not a peace treaty, and tens of thousands of U.S. troops continue to be stationed in South Korea. There are no foreign troops based in North Korea, but China continues to be an essential trading partner and political buffer in international forums.
It remains unclear exactly how Washington views the recent moves by the two Koreas and how involved it is.
Trump had previously scoffed at the futility of talking with the North, but when the dialogue was proposed last week tweeted: “Sanctions and ‘other’ pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. … Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for the first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not — we will see.”
The next day, he fired off another tweet, seeming to take credit for the whole thing: “Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing.”
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, had both said they believed the talks would be limited to the Olympics, a position that didn’t jibe with what Seoul was saying. When the officials actually sat down, they discussed a range of issues that included reuniting families divided by the Korean War.
“Is this the beginning of something?” Tillerson said in an interview in Washington with the AP last week. “I think it’s premature.”
Possibly. But for now, at least, it appears the two Koreas have taken the reins.
Talmadge has been the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @erictalmadge.