Pyongyang, which rejected Seoul’s offer to co-host the first anniversary event for the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, has strongly blasted Seoul for South Korea-U.S. joint military drills. Mentioning the South Korea-U.S. “Alliance 19-1” drill, the North’s Korean Central News Agency claimed, “It is a violent violation of the agreement reached at the North Korea-South Korea summit and the North Korea-U.S. summit.” Earlier, the North’s Committee for Peaceful Unification of the Fatherland said, “The North-South Korea relations could fall into an irreparable situation going forward.” Since its collapsed summit with the U.S. in Hanoi, Vietnam, the North appears to be shifting the focus of its external strategy to military issues.
Since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said at the Supreme People’s Assembly that his nation will no longer be obsessed with lifting of sanctions, Pyongyang has raised military issues including joint drills, poising to demand guarantee of its regime security in earnest. This initiative already surfaced through a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin during the North Korea-Russia summit. “The North Korean regime’s security should be guaranteed first to ensure denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” President Putin said, while proposing six-way talks for providing international guarantee of the North Korean regime security.
It remains to be seen how Pyongyang will ask security guarantees for its regime, but if Pyongyang demands this issue in earnest, negotiations for denuclearization will likely become all the more challenging. Pyongyang will seek to stop South Korea-U.S. joint military drills, and end the stationing of U.S. troops in the South, and Washington’s deployment of its strategic assets, and thus direct further negotiations towards talks for bilateral arms reduction and transformation of the Korean Peninsula into a nuclear free area. The North has already been claiming under the table that U.S. strategic assets including those in Guam and Hawaii should also be removed.
What is worrisome is that although these issues are directly linked to South Koreans’ national security, they could be downgraded into matters for negotiations and compromises between the U.S. and North Korea, and even between neighboring countries. Washington will not easily accept Pyongyang’s demand. However, since U.S. President Donald Trump tends to regard even the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and joint military drills as financial issues, we cannot completely rule out the possibility that he could try and use these issues as matters for deal-making between Washington and Pyongyang. Notably, the North will seek to drive wedge between Seoul and Washington, which have shown signs of growing differences. The Seoul government should accelerate its efforts to strengthen collaboration with Washington to ensure that Pyongyang will not seek to make ill-advised and unwarranted demand.