Kim makes peace overtures to South Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sought to drive a wedge between the Trump administration and South Korea this week by extending an olive branch to Seoul. In his annual New Year’s speech, Kim offered to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and proposed to restart inter-Korean talks to ease military tensions. At the same time, Kim warned Washington that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk and that the entire United States is now in range of North Korean missiles. “It’s not a mere threat but a reality,” Kim said. “The U.S. can never start a war against myself and our nation now.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has championed diplomatic engagement with the North, quickly embraced Kim’s offer, leading North Korea to reopen a border hotline in the Demilitarized Zone that had been disabled for two years. Negotiators from both sides are set to meet in the DMZ next week to discuss North Korea’s participation in the Olympics. President Trump responded to Kim’s speech with fury. “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button,” Trump tweeted. “But it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
What the columnists said
President Trump is getting played by Kim, said David Frum in TheAtlantic.com. With each unhinged tweet, Trump gives South Koreans fewer reasons to trust that the U.S. will prevent their country from being plunged into a devastating war, “incentivizing the South to placate the North.” That’s exactly what Kim wants— a rift between South Korea and the U.S., said Margaret Hartmann in NYMag.com. Kim may believe that if he improves relations with the South, Seoul will “push the U.S. toward détente.” At the very least, he’ll be able to build his case that the North’s nuclear arsenal is a necessary defense against U.S. aggression.
Kim’s overture looks like “a Trojan horse,” said Gordon Chang in TheDailyBeast.com. It’s no surprise that the regime is changing tactics now that recent United Nations sanctions are starting to bite, with reports trickling out of the North about malnourished soldiers and even ration cuts for privileged officials. In the short term, Kim will likely demand aid from the South. But his ultimate goals are even bigger: “break the seven-decades-old U.S.–South Korea alliance, get 28,500 American troops off the peninsula, and intimidate South Koreans into permanently accepting his rule.”
“No one should be afraid to talk,” said John Kirby in CNN.com. The initial discussions between the North and South will be limited in scope, likely centered on logistical details involving two North Korean athletes who have qualified for the Olympics. As for the sparring between Trump and Kim, the U.S.–South Korea alliance is “bigger than any two personalities,” having lasted for 12 presidential administrations. But the fact remains that the Korean Peninsula is closer than it’s ever been to nuclear war—“all the more reason to find new ways to engage peacefully.”