Little space seen for Seoul in North Korea talks



South Korea is unlikely to be given a say in upcoming talks between the United States and China over North Korea because it has little leverage over the North, analysts opined Monday. Their analysis reflects pessimism that Seoul has no choice but to wait for a possible big deal between the U.S. and China in handling the North’s nuclear brinkmanship.
Seoul has virtually used up all its cards on Pyongyang by shutting down the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in 2016 and cutting all inter-Korean dialogue channels in line with U.S.-led sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime for its nuclear and missile programs.
In this climate, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi raised the possibility to discuss North Korea’s denuclearization without Seoul, offering U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a three-way dialogue among Washington, Beijing and Pyongyang exclusively, Saturday.
Analysts said it is critical for Seoul to ensure the Donald Trump administration fully considers South Korea’s opinions in shaping U.S. polices on the North before a possible summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in April. The leadership vacuum in South Korea, however, is likely to hamper Seoul’s efforts to actively engage with Washington and make its voice heard, they said.
“Our view is unlikely to be reflected even if the U.S. manages to narrow its differences with China over North Korea and reach a consensus on some of the related issues,” said Koh You-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University. “We may have no options but to keep pace in accordance with U.S. and China policies.”
Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at the Handong Global University, echoed the view. “The foreign ministerial meeting between the U.S. and China last week should be seen as a warm-up for Washington before finalizing the U.S. policies on North Korea,” he said. “Such policies will depend on the outcome of the U.S-China summit and making our voice heard in a timely manner will be critical. Unfortunately, the political turmoil here is not being so helpful.”
Kim Yong-hyun, also a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University, referred to Tillerson’s referral of South Korea as “an important partner” during an interview with the Independent Journal, Saturday. Such a referral was perceived as if the U.S. puts less importance on South Korea compared to Japan, which Tillerson called “our most important ally” in Asia-Pacific.
“I’d say Tillerson’s visit to Asia last week opened the possibility for South Korea’s diminished role in regional security as well as Pyongyang’s direct talks with the U.S. with China in between,” Kim said. Other experts speculated that the next South Korean government will face a similar problem.—Agencies