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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 16)

07:00 January 16, 2020

Diplomatic flexibility
ROK, US should use each other to break deadlock in North Korea talks

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha stressed the need to revitalize inter-Korean projects as a means to break the deadlock in the denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Tuesday.

Also on the table was South Korea's possible dispatch of naval assets to the Strait of Hormuz. Kang opened the possibility of sending a unit there as an option to support U.S.-led security operations in the volatile area amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Seemingly, Seoul is using the U.S. request for a naval dispatch as a bargaining tool to resume exchanges with North Korea, which have been suspended due mainly to the stalled negotiations between the North and the U.S. They are separate issues, but cannot be separable for diplomats. Of course, there may be many more factors South Korea should consider in making any decision about protecting its national interest in the Middle East, but it is true that the U.S. request provides a window of opportunity to the South to get inter-Korean relations back on track. Diplomatic shrewdness and flexibility are needed more than ever for the Moon Jae-in administration to produce the best results for the future of this country.

According to the foreign ministry, Kang shared President Moon's renewed push for inter-Korean exchanges with Pompeo. Kang told reporters after the meeting that South Korea's relations with the North and U.S. relations with the North "cannot always move at the same pace." She said, "With no progress in North Korea-U.S. dialogue, we believe it is important for the South and the North to have dialogue and maintain the momentum for North Korea's engagement."

This apparently reflects the South's frustration over the long-stalled talks between the U.S. and the North as Seoul has been waiting for a deal with patience to use it as a catalyst for inter-Korean peace projects. More importantly, Kang's remarks can be a symbolic message that Seoul will move more independently from Washington in dealing with Pyongyang.

It is not new that the allies have differences over maintaining sanctions on North Korea amid the stalled denuclearization dialogue and renewed threats from the North. For the U.S., it is a useful -- if not the best -- option to use South Korea to bring the North back to the negotiating table and revive the dialogue momentum, instead of sticking to the sanctions regime.

In Seoul, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul vowed to take all possible measures to improve relations with North Korea, rather than waiting for progress in the U.S.-North negotiations. During a meeting with civic and religious groups, Kim said he will review various options, including cooperation with international organizations and civic exchanges, to revitalize inter-Korean exchanges, emphasizing that such efforts will help the U.S. and the North resume their talks.

Minister Kang said to Pompeo that Seoul is looking at ways to contribute to the international efforts to maintain security in the Middle East from "multiple" perspectives. Flexibility is also necessary for the U.S. to bring a positive change to the Korean Peninsula. The allies must reach a deal first before seeking a deal with North Korea.
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