Explainer: Why North Korea wants sanctions lifted first

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Days after outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in made possibly his last ambitious push to diplomatically resolve the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program, the North on Friday rejected his call for a declaration ending the Korean War, making it clear it has no interest in political statements unless they bring badly needed relief from crippling economic sanctions.

Nuclear diplomacy between the US and North Korea has stalled over disagreements over a relaxation of the US-led sanctions in exchange for steps toward denuclearization by the North.

Analysts say North Korea is trying to use Moon’s desire for inter-Korean engagement to pressure South Korea into extracting concessions from Washington on its behalf.

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This picture taken on September 9, 2021 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 10 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) taking part in a photo session with participants in the military parade in Pyongyang. (AFP)
This picture taken on September 9, 2021 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 10 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) taking part in a photo session with participants in the military parade in Pyongyang. (AFP)

Why is Moon offering a peace declaration?

The 1950-53 Korean War, in which North Korea and ally China faced off against South Korea and US-led UN forces, ended with an armistice, but there was never a peace treaty.

In a speech at the UN General Assembly this week, Moon called for an end-of-war declaration while expressing hopes for a quick resumption of talks between the US and North Korea. He said such a declaration among the leaders of the Koreas, the United States and China would help achieve denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Moon’s proposal was an attempt to break the stalemate as he nears the end of his term in May 2022. North Korea had initially supported South Korea’s call for an end-of-war declaration when Seoul helped set up a summit between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and former US President Donald Trump in 2018 in which Kim aimed to leverage his nuclear weapons in exchange for economic benefits.

Such an end-of-war declaration would make it easier for North Korea to demand that the United States withdraw its 28,500 troops in South Korea and ease sanctions.

But North Korea lost interest in the idea after talks between Kim and Trump collapsed during their second summit in February 2019. The Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantling of an aging nuclear facility, a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Why is North Korea rejecting Moon’s offer?

On Friday, Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae Song issued separate statements rebuffing Moon’s proposal.

Kim Yo Jong’s comments were directed toward Moon while Ri’s were aimed at the Biden administration, but they communicated essentially the same message — that North Korea isn’t interested in an end-of-war declaration unless Washington first discards its “hostile” policies, a reference to the US-led economic sanctions and its military activities with ally South Korea.

Ri said such a declaration would be “premature” considering US efforts to strengthen its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, which North Korea has increasingly used to justify the expansion of its own nuclear and missile programs.

North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong in Singapore (AFP)
North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong in Singapore (AFP)

Kim Yo Jong, who handles inter-Korean affairs, used softer language toward South Korea, saying the North is willing to resume “constructive” discussions over improving bilateral ties if the South abandons its hostility and “double-dealing standards.”

She was clearly demanding that Seoul try harder to persuade Washington to offer “concrete actions to resume negotiations, whether they be the relaxing of sanctions or suspension of US-South Korea joint military exercises,” which North Korea views as an invasion rehearsal, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

North Korea’s statements on Friday show it has no expectation that Biden will accept Moon’s call, said Park Won Gon, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University.

“The North still has nothing to lose with the South proposing an end-of-war declaration again and it basically gave Seoul ‘homework’ to press Washington to meet its demands,” Park said. “The North could be trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, or create a rift in public opinion within South Korea by pressuring Seoul over the state of inter-Korean relations.”

What are the prospects for nuclear talks?

The North Korean nuclear issue receded from the center of attention at this year’s UN General Assembly with newer global challenges such as the coronavirus, rising US-China tensions and Afghanistan’s uncertain future.

But North Korea hates to be ignored, and its recent missile tests after months of relative quiet have raised speculation that Kim is once again flaunting its military might to wrest concessions from Washington if the long-stalled talks over his nuclear program resume.

Some experts say Kim is facing harsh domestic challenges, with pandemic-linked border closures further hurting an economy already battered by decades of mismanagement and international sanctions. They say the sense of alarm could push North Korea to escalate its weapons tests in the coming months to pressure the world before offering negotiations to extract aid, at least until China begins pushing for calm ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics early next year.

This month, North Korea tested a new cruise missile it intends to arm with nuclear warheads and demonstrated the launching of ballistic missiles from rail cars as it expands its arsenal of shorter-range weapons threatening US allies South Korea and Japan.

“Even while under a pandemic lockdown, North Korea continues to modernize its military, including nuclear weapons and various means of delivering them,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha, who sees little room for Moon to advance his peace agenda.

“The Biden administration has repeatedly offered dialogue and humanitarian engagement, but the Kim regime appears to want sanctions relief and de facto nuclear recognition in exchange for averting a crisis.”

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