North Korea/South Korea politics: Quick View - South Korea responds positively to the North's overture

Content Type
Country Data and Maps
Institution
Economist Intelligence Unit
Abstract
No abstract is available.
Topic
International Relations, Politics, News Analysis, Forecast
Political Geography
South Korea, North Korea

Event

On January 1st North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, delivered a New Year speech in which he stated the urgent need to improve ties with the South. This was welcomed by the South Korean authorities, which proposed holding inter-Korean talks on January 9th.

Analysis

In a rare conciliatory message, Kim Jong-un not only declared his resolve to improve ties with South Korea but also stated that the North would participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. At the same time, the North Korean leader remained hostile towards the US, declaring that the country's nuclear arsenal is ready for deployment if necessary. North Korea conducted multiple missile tests last year, including its sixth official nuclear missile test in September. These pushed the already-isolated state deeper into economic exile, as most of the international community reacted to the tests sternly, leading to a raft of new UN sanctions.

In this tense context, North Korea continuously rebuked the South's diplomatic outreach efforts throughout most of 2017. Kim Jong-un's New Year speech therefore hints at a willingness to take advantage of calls by the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, for re-engagement. That the Northern regime would be willing to hold talks with South Korea has long been The Economist Intelligence Unit's view. After a decade of conservative rule, the election in May 2017 of a liberal president in South Korea, who campaigned on departing from a hardline approach to the North, represented a major diplomatic opportunity for Kim Jong-un. We believe that there are a number of potential channels of engagement, at the economic, diplomatic and cultural levels, and participation by North Korea in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics represents a low-hanging fruit in improving inter-Korean relations.

Talks between the two Koreas will be vigorously supported by China, but the US position remains unclear. Additionally, core obstacles to in-depth bilateral dialogue remain. South Korea's economic engagement with the North, which could include reopening joint projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex, is hindered by UN sanctions. These are unlikely to be lifted, as North Korea will remain committed to its nuclear programme in 2018-19.

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