Fate of inter-Korean detente hangs on nuclear talks

Despite no signs of North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons any time soon, South Korea is literally bouncing ahead this week with peace efforts with its rival, which was threatening war just months ago.

Two days of friendly basketball games winding up Thursday in Pyongyang were the latest in a slew of goodwill gestures between the Koreas in recent months. The women's and men's matches came just ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's arrival in North Korea on Friday for two days of talks over the future of the North's nuclear program.

A capacity crowd of 12,000 applauded as the teams — dressed in white jerseys that read "Peace" and green jerseys that read "Prosperity" — marched onto the court holding hands. Players from the North and South were mixed into teams for Wednesday's games.

The South Koreans play the North Korean teams Thursday before returning home Friday.

It remains to be seen how much further the rival Koreas can push their conciliatory steps. The fate of these efforts is ultimately tied to progress in nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. If the nuclear talks bog down, it could mean curtains for inter-Korean detente.

"Goodwill gestures between the Koreas can be compared to rocking back and forth in a rocking chair — it feels good, but you aren't really moving forward," said Bong Young-shik, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. "These gestures alone don't ensure progress in denuclearizing the North and stabilizing peace."

The basketball diplomacy follows agreements to send combined teams to the Asian Games in August and hold temporary reunions of now-aging relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korean workers began commuting to the North Korean border town of Kaesong this week to repair a building at a closed factory park where the rivals plan to set up a liaison office.

Their militaries are in the process of restoring communication lines that could defuse crises across their tense border. Longer-term, the Koreas have vowed to improve the North's aging railways and roads.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who held highly-publicized summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April and May, has described the peace efforts as crucial because Kim won't give up his nuclear weapons unless he feels his security is assured.

The South's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said last week that Seoul will try to facilitate civilian-level exchanges in the coming months and promote exchanges between South and North Korean media.

He downplayed concerns that improved relations will be accompanied by the easing of sanctions and pressure on North Korea, saying that the progress in inter-Korean projects will depend on whether appropriate conditions are created.

Acknowledging existing sanctions, Seoul has refrained from offering joint economic projects, which Pyongyang wants the most, and built its engagement around sports, cultural and humanitarian programs. However, even these programs could lose momentum if Pyongyang doesn't show genuine interest in denuclearization soon, experts said.

South Korea will try to stay in lockstep with the United States if the diplomacy hits a rough patch. North Korea's government, which is constantly concerned about increasing North Koreans' awareness of the outside world, would be just as likely to hit the brakes on goodwill gestures and exchanges if it decides that economic and security benefits aren't coming soon, Bong said.

Any significant rewards from South Korea and the United States would depend on whether North Korea is ready to give up the nuclear weapons it may see as its strongest guarantee of survival.

With last month's summit between Kim and President Donald Trump resulting in only a vague statement on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it's now up to Pompeo to hammer out the details in follow-up talks with North Korean officials.

Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Trump's window to lock North Korea into a genuine denuclearization process may close as early as November if his Republican Party loses congressional elections, reducing the administration's political leverage. It's crucial that Pompeo leaves Pyongyang with something substantial, he said.

"It would be tough for Pompeo to squeeze a timetable out of North Korea this week, but he at least needs to get them to announce a rough roadmap for denuclearization," Choi said.

For Moon, a return to 2017, when the North's nuclear and missile tests and Trump's bombastic tweets raised animosity on the Korean Peninsula to new heights, would be very difficult to swallow.

Moon, the son of North Korean war refugees, has vowed to build on the legacies of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Under their "Sunshine Policy," economic inducements from Seoul resulted in temporary rapprochement and summits in 2000 and 2007 with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim Dae-jung's engagement with North Korea was often a source of discord with the hard-line U.S. administration of former President George W. Bush, and disagreements between Washington and Seoul continued during Roh's government.

Moon is also a liberal, but unlike his predecessors, he isn't likely to continue engagement if it widens a rift with Washington, Choi said.

The South Korean president has worked to maintain a coordinated approach with Trump on North Korea. He has stayed firm on sanctions and offered vocal support to Trump's pressure campaign last year, which he now credits for bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

"Moon is different from Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun," Choi said. "He knows that real progress in inter-Korean relations can only be achieved through denuclearization."


Follow Kim Tong-hyung on Twitter at @KimTongHyung