Kim Jong-un’s offer to re-open the hotline with South Korea cannot be seen as merely a ploy to wedge ROK and the United States, as so readily claimed last Tuesday by Nikki Haley, United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
First, the message was delivered by Kim Jong-un personally, not just by a spokesman of the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC).
Second, Kim refers to President Moon Jae-in by name and proper title, showing respect, if not comradely affection, for the South Korean president .
Third, it responds in a positive and personal way to Moon’s earlier instructions at a ROK State Council meeting to invite a North Korean team to the forthcoming ROK Winter Olympics.
So how does President Trump and his Administration respond to it? Certainly with hostility, suspicion and scorn, similar to Trump’s reactions to Kim Jong-un’s claim to have a nuclear button on his desk. Trump claims he has a bigger nuclear button on his desk and unlike the one in Pyongyang, it works. The exchange reminds one of two schoolboys comparing the size and potency of their penises, a risible subject appropriate to the schoolyard, but dangerously inappropriate in high stakes diplomacy with the lives of millions at stake. The boast is injudicious coming from the leader of a small and poverty- stricken country desperate to resist regime-change, but reckless and dangerous coming from the leader of the world’s remaining military super power. As in so many things, Trump’s intemperate language degrades American dignity and status in the eyes of much of the world. It is also, on both leaders’ part, in contempt of international law which prohibits making nuclear threats against sovereign states.
And then there is Nikki Haley’s dismissive assertion in the United Nations that North Korea may talk to whom it likes, but no conversations with other countries will undermine the close military and political relations existing between Washington and Seoul. In fact, the Ambassador protests too much. Republic of Korea forces remains subordinate to and under United States command, but perhaps she may be becoming a trifle uneasy about the way in which this arrangement is rapidly losing its credibility. An aftermath of the Korea War, it is a situation against which South Koreans increasingly chafe. Nevertheless, whatever the popular feeling in South Korea about subordination to American command, the American military shows no sign of changing it, or modifying its rigid insistence on holding regular and increasingly provocative joint exercises with South Korean forces.
Despite this static from Washington, there are grounds for hope that Kim Jong-un’s gesture towards some degree of communications with President Moon may lead to something positive. It is unlikely that Kim Jong-un will do some kind of deal with Moon Jae-in to reduce or abolish his nuclear force. He has said often enough that North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state, and whether this status is recognised or not, the world had better get used to it. But he may be prepared to freeze underground tests or suspend ad interim missile launches in exchange for Moon leanin g on the Pentagon to postpone further military exercises in South Korea for the time being.
Short of this, however, opening the hot line and having some talks over arrangements for North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics may lead to growing capacity of the two countries to deal with each other. It’s about time President Trump stopped ignoring the Republic of Korea in his fulminations against Pyongyang and started to pay attention to what the South Koreans want.
Richard Broinowski is a former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.