The news that North Korea has asked Seoul for US$6 million to fund a census might be viewed as a thaw in Pyongyang’s freeze on holding discussions with the South. That would be wrong.
It is the South that has been actively seeking talks with the North, offering to hold discussions with Pyongyang’s military and to negotiate over families separated by the Korean War.
That Pyongyang has declined to engage can be understood by considering what benefits would accrue to North Korea from such discussions.
A starting point might be the need for food relief because of the current drought. But since aid is forthcoming from Russia, and NGOs along with other relief agencies sure to jump in with additional no-strings-attached aid, no talks on that subject are needed.
Then there is the need for petroleum products, but China has that covered — Beijing is not about to let Pyongyang collapse.
It could be argued that talks may lead to relief from sanctions, but there is no likelihood the sanctions will end any time soon, and they don’t seem to be having much of an effect anyway, according to recent reports that the North’s economy actually grew last year.
From Pyongyang’s perspective, it’s in a tolerable position with very little need to seek anything from Seoul.
Getting cash to fund a census in the North would be gravy. Since the South wants such information for unification planning, Pyongyang’s position is that Seoul should pay for it.
Let’s count the ways
Instead, consider the reasons why Pyongyang won’t engage in talks at this point.
By holding out, Seoul is forced to continue making entreaties. Thus, when the North finally does respond, it will demand more and greater concessions in exchange for whatever it is that the South seeks — family reunions, an end to DMZ incidents, or cooperation on inter-Korean trade.
What the North will not put up for discussion is its nuclear weapons or longer-range ICBM programs. This, of course, stumps Washington, for that is the only issue that the US is willing to discuss.
Recent history supports Pyongyang’s bedrock belief that its nuclear weapons and delivery systems are its indispensable security guarantee. That could suggest the stand-off will remain, but that too is questionable.
Many Western experts believe that North Korea is close to attaining — if it has not already attained — successful miniaturization of its nuclear devices to fit atop its recently demonstrated ICBM.
Moreover, other observers believe that it will not be long until the North has a missile capable of reaching all of the American mainland.
Pyongyang is also working on thermonuclear weapons, capable of many more times the destructive power than the Hiroshima/Nagasaki-class devices it is thought to possess.
Whether the North’s missiles are as precise as American ICBMs is irrelevant. Even if they are not delivered with pin-point accuracy against mainland American bases they could detonate over Seattle or Honolulu.
That point has not been lost on Hawaiian officials who are resurrecting their old Cold War safety drills.
Its too late to reverse what Pyongyang has already achieved and once its goals of deliverable nuclear weapons are attained, the relationship between North Korea and its enemies will be changed.
Kim Jong Un will control his world, which is when Pyongyang will be interested in sitting down for talks.
Robert E. McCoy is a retired US Air Force North Korea specialist who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years.