In our 2018 Annual Forecast, Stratfor highlights the difficult road ahead for the United States as it attempts to counter North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Though the United States has strengthened its ties to regional partner South Korea, the government in Seoul remains staunchly opposed to a military solution. A rhetorical divide between South Korea and the United States is widening, as Seoul pushes to avoid armed conflict and Washington continues to pursue a hard line that does not fully rule out a military strike.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un extended an olive branch in his annual New Year's Day address to a receptive South Korean government, which has been growing increasingly nervous about the prospect of armed conflict on the peninsula. Though Kim claimed that North Korea had attained a reliable nuclear deterrent in 2017, he also called for a breakthrough in Korean relations and a path toward reunification and away from nuclear war. Specifically, he said the two sides should meet soon to discuss North Korea's participation in the Olympic Games taking place next month in Pyeongchang. South Korea's Unification Ministry responded positively Jan. 2, proposing high-level talks Jan. 9 and the reopening of a telephone hotline. Such steps would be a breakthrough, as no such face-to-face dialogue has taken place since December 2015 and the hotline has been silent since 2016. In reaching out, Kim may be trying to exploit South Korea's fears to push against U.S. pressure.
The movements toward dialogue come at an opportune time for South Korea, which has the most to lose from a U.S. military strike on North Korea and has grown increasingly interested in relieving the tension. North Korean missile testing could cast a long shadow over the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, which are already beleaguered by Chinese economic pressure. To avoid a North Korean missile test during the games, South Korea has been pushing to delay joint military exercises with the United States until after they've concluded. Kim appeared open to such an arrangement in his speech, saying that the two sides should avoid actions that might aggravate the situation.
Depending on the North Korean response to the proposed talks and how far discussions are able to go beyond the narrow issue of the Olympic Games, several things could come from dialogue. The two countries could, for example, resume civilian exchanges, reopen daily hotline calls, or even revive the joint Kaesong Industrial Region closed in 2016. Reopening the industrial region would be particularly noteworthy and has been touted recently by a South Korean government report condemning the closure by the previous administration. But progress toward a lasting solution will be difficult to reach. Both sides have made it clear they have differing views on the cause of their conflict: Kim has blamed South Korea's adherence to U.S. wishes while South Korean President Moon Jae In points to North Korea's nuclear build up.
Though a thaw in Korean relations has long been anticipated, a compromise could sow mistrust between the United States and South Korea. The U.S. Department of State declined to comment on Kim's apparent overture, saying that the United States and South Korea were in contact on a "unified response to North Korea" while also thanking South Korea for its recent seizure of two China-connected oil tankers transferring petroleum products to North Korea-flagged vessels. South Korea could frame a pause in military exercises as a concession, which would clash with the U.S. interests. With North Korea within reach of developing reliable nuclear weapons, Washington will be loath to reduce the pressure on Pyongyang. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis responded to questions on a possible postponement by saying that adjusting dates is not unusual but that he wasn't aware of any changes.
Kim, for his part, emphasized the scope of North Korea's nuclear missile capabilities, saying the button to initiate a nuclear war was on his desk. Kim said that North Korea would not resort to nuclear weapons or threats unless hostile forces violated the country's sovereignty. He expressed confidence that the United States would not invade because of North Korea's new and powerful nuclear deterrent, completed in 2017 and ready to be mass-produced in the coming year. North Korea hasn't fully demonstrated that it has attained a credible nuclear deterrent yet, but the United States is running out of time and options to keep them from doing so.