North Korea Offers Start Dialogue If Sanctions Lifted

Pyongyang says it is willing to resume dialogue if the allies end their threats of “nuclear war.”

North Korean flags in Pyongyang, July 29, 2007
North Korean flags in Pyongyang, July 29, 2007 (Fljckr)

North Korea on Thursday demanded that South Korea and the United States stop joint military exercises in East Asia and the United Nations lift its sanctions on the regime if world powers seek to resume dialogue with it.

The conditions, which are highly unlikely to be met, follow several weeks of provocations from the isolated communist country, including the suspension of an armistice agreement with the South and threats to strike American army bases in the peninsula and the Pacific Ocean.

Analysts have struggled to interpret the threats as North Korea probably lacks the ability to hit military targets far removed from it and would certainly lose a war that involves the United States.

Nearly 30,000 American troops are deployed in South Korea. Another 40,000 Defense Department personnel is stationed in nearby Japan.

North Korea’s National Defense Commission, its highest policy making body and chaired by leader Kim Jong-un who succeeded his father in the position in April of last year, said it also sought “formal assurances” from the allies that they will not again stage “nuclear drills” — possibly a reference to the overflight of two American stealth bombers late last month which are capable of delivering atomic weapons — as well as the peninsula’s denuclearization.

Yet earlier in the week, the Foreign Ministry had cautioned that “genuine dialogue” is only possible when North Korea acquires a nuclear deterrent capable of defusing America’s “threat of nuclear war.”

The United States and other world powers seek the peninsula’s denuclearization and enacted sanctions against the North in the United Nations Security Council because it thrice tested nuclear weapons after withdrawing from an international nonproliferation accord in 2003.

North Korea most recently tested a nuclear device in February, triggering tougher Security Council sanctions that were not vetoed by its traditional ally China. Indeed, China expressed its “staunch opposition” to the test and said it was “strongly dissatisfied” by it.

This week’s overtures from Pyongyang may have been in response to Chinese pressure. Some policymakers in Beijing have recently expressed their mounting frustration with the North’s seemingly erratic behavior, if anonymously. The deployment of American nuclear strike assets to the region could have alarmed them further.

However, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry also echoed Chinese accusations of the United States exploiting rising tension in Northeast Asia to legitimize its strategic “pivot” to the area. A defense white paper released earlier this week claimed, “Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region and frequently makes the situation there tenser.”

It isn’t clear whether China’s civilian leaders share the army’s view of American policy in the region.

The military tends to be more sympathetic to North Korea or concerned about the prospect of reunification on allied terms following a confrontation.

The United States on Wednesday rejected the possibility of giving in to North Korean demands in order to resume negotiations about its nuclear program. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Washington that he had “no desire to do the same horse trade or go down the old road.”

North Korea has a history of making threats to secure concessions from foreign nations.