DW: The fact that representatives from North and South Korea have sat together at a table and held talks could already be considered a successful step in relations. Now that the meeting is over, what outcomes did it bring?
Patrick Köllner: First off, it was agreed at Tuesday’s talks that North Korea will participate in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. This also guarantees that the games will be peaceful and quiet. This is of the utmost importance for the South Korean government. It is also expected that family reunions between the North and South will resume after being suspended for several years. Trust-building measures could also emerge in the form of talks between the two countries’ militaries.
Those are the tangible results – but what in your opinion is the most important message that can be read between the lines after the meeting in Panmunjom?
One important message is that North and South Korea, the most important actors in the middle of this conflict, have actually managed to begin talking again. The initiative is once again with Seoul and Pyongyang.
The last year was characterized overall by North Korea’s armament efforts and the resulting reaction from the United States and the international community. It is crucial that the two Korean governments communicate because this conflict primarily affects 50 million Koreans.
Do you think anything surprising happened during the meeting, or did the talks go as expected?
The talks went positively in the sense that North Korea, after everything that we know, did not insist that planned military exercises between the US and South Korea be called off. The exercises, which were planned directly after the games, were postponed, but not cancelled. Requiring they be called off would most likely have led to the talks collapsing.
What were the goals and background agenda for each side during the talks?
North Korea, of course, continues to follow the strategic aim of putting a wedge in the alliance between Washington and Seoul. But South Korea certainly knows this, and this alone doesn’t exclude the possibility of reintroducing increased economic cooperation between the two Koreas.
The drive to increase economic cooperation has been put on ice for the past few years because of North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing. Even deliveries of humanitarian aid from South Korea were reduced. North Korea has an interest in once again promoting economic cooperation.
South Korea has an interest in not letting important discussions about developments on the Korean Peninsula bypass Seoul.
The positions of both sides seem incompatible. The North wants to keep its nuclear program and the South wants a nuclear weapon-free peninsula. How much maneuvering room do negotiators on each side have?
Negotiations are complicated by the fact that possibilities for compromise are limited by the international sanctions regime hung on North Korea. Of course, South Korea cannot come out with its own measures that violate these sanctions. US interests in the background also complicate matters, and there is always the need to coordinate with Washington in addition to Seoul and Pyongyang.
But trust-building measures could be possible, especially with the military. South Korean humanitarian aid could also be increased. These small steps could be the basis of talks on larger issues, which could also include the US and the question of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.
After today’s talks, is it too early to hope for an overall relaxation of tensions?
We need to keep in mind that the discussions did not change the fundamental constellation of issues. North Korea’s weapons program continues and Kim Jong Un promised in his New Year’s address to increase weapons production. Big challenges remain.
But there are also positive takeaways – especially the fact that diplomacy is once again playing a role. We have spent the past year considering the possibility of military action. It is really a positive development to see examples of diplomacy.
Professor Patrick Köllner is director of the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies in Hamburg.
The interview was conducted by Esther Felden.