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South Korea Is Still Talking Tough on North Korea — But Their Relations Might Actually Be Improving

While warning of North Korea's nuclear weapons and cyber army, South Korean officials have also been pursuing talks that could dramatically improve relations between the two countries.

by Colleen Curry
Jan 7 2015, 12:40am

Photo via Flickr

South Korea made several public pronouncements this week about the growing threat posed by its northern neighbor, warning that North Korea may have a 6,000-member cyber army and missiles that could reach the US mainland.

But while also applauding new US sanctions against Kim Jong-un's regime, experts say South Korean leaders have been inching closer to holding formal talks with their North Korean counterparts that could lead to a thawing of their relationship.

South Korea's National Defense Ministry released a report Tuesday claiming that North Korea's army has a cyber warfare division with 6,000 members, and that the reclusive country's nuclear capabilities are growing rapidly. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency described the report as saying that North Korea had "achieved a 'significant level' of technology to miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit on its ballistic missiles that could potentially reach the United States mainland."

The report was released a day after South Korean officials met with China to officially reaffirm their "zero tolerance" stance toward North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and to publicly agree to work together more cooperatively toward regional peace, according to Yonhap. The government also made a January 3 public statement that applauded the US for new sanctions levied as retaliation for North Korea's alleged role in the Sony Pictures hack.

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Despite the quick succession of seemingly anti-North Korean statements, South Korea's government has simultaneously been pursuing official talks that could lead to the most dramatic improvement in relations between the two countries since the Korean War.

On Tuesday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye urged North Korea to accept her December offer to hold talks this month. Some of North Korea's recent actions indicate they may agree to the meeting.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un devoted much of his New Year's address last week to the possibility of holding talks with South Korea, and top North Korean officials traveled to Seoul in the fall of 2014 to meet with senior South Korean officials.

"Actually, the North Koreans made most of the moves to reach out to South Korea, which is not well understood here but clearly understood in South Korea," Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, told VICE News. "I think this a serious moment. It's the first time in 60 years where you're likely to have serious talks."

'This a serious moment. It's the first time in 60 years where you're likely to have serious talks.'

Sigal added that both sides have demands, and there's no guarantee they'll agree to anything. "Oftentimes these things break down," he said.

Rodger Baker, vice president of Asia-Pacific analysis at the global intelligence company Stratfor, told VICE News that both North and South Korea are actually under serious pressure to come to some kind of agreement to effectively deal with the increasing regional influence of China and Japan. Though they may make regular unfriendly pronouncements about one another, it's in the interest of both countries to hold talks soon, Baker said

"China is reasserting its position as the center of Asia, as its core regional power, and at the same time Japan is waking up from 20-plus years of a sort of malaise," Baker said. "If you're either of the Koreas, you're now back in your least favorite position — being stuck between a rising China and a rising Japan in an area of intense competition and threat."

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Baker said North and South Korea could be "heavily exploited" by the neighboring countries, and that talks to improve relations are "grinding on" in the background.

According to Sigal, the possibility of improved diplomacy between North and South Korea may also benefit the US, which wants North Korea to end its nuclear program and give up its weapons. But the American strategy of isolation and "strategic patience," has so far resulted North Korea increasing its weapons stash.

Though the Obama administration has not publicly discussed any new North Korea policies — and the war of words that surrounded the Sony hack seems to indicate tensions are running high — Sigal said some US officials realize that isolating North Korea isn't working.

"The question is, can we structure a gradual change in the US relationship with North Korea however politically difficult in return for gradual demilitarization?" Sigal said, stressing that any changes would likely be slow in the making. "We're not going to get their weapons any time soon but we can stop the programs so there aren't more weapons."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Photo via Flickr/Expert Infantry