The rogue government of North Korea cannot be trusted, and Kim Jong-un’s offer to ease tensions with the South needs to be treated with great scepticism. North Korea has little interest in genuine rapprochement, and its leadership’s sole interest is survival. No one should forget that Kim’s government recently fired off a ballistic missile which was provocatively aimed through Korean and Japanese territory, before falling into the Pacific Ocean close to the Philippines.
The new conservative South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, has taken a tough line on North Korea in her first speeches on foreign policy, which may have triggered Kim’s response, but he was talking blatant nonsense when he said that “an important issue … in achieving reunification is to remove confrontation between the North and South”. Kim is not interested in reunifying which would require him to step down and leave the political stage for ever.
As Park starts the difficult task of building a working and realistic relationship with North Korea, she will have to tackle the relationship with China, where Kim and his northern regime finds its ultimate backing. It suits China to have a buffer between it and South Korea, but this decades-old Chinese assumption has to be challenged, and Park will be doing a great thing if she can find a way to work with the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. He has been very enigmatic on what policies he will promote during his tenure as China’s president: he has been firmly pro-Communist, but also firmly pragmatic. However, he may well want to open up to his regional neighbours, but almost certainly on China’s terms, not theirs.
This means that Park needs to restart Korea’s foreign policy, looking at maintaining the enduring issues of trade and free movement of goods, people and services, which all sides have a strong interest in keeping going, while avoiding major clashes over the islands, and finding a new answer for dealing with the failed regime in North Korea.