North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang. The news created a stir in the global media and among analysts. Moon did not explicitly accept or decline the invitation, leaving a great mystery hanging over the Korean Peninsula situation.
Kim's invitation provided a new clue on how the situation will evolve after the Winter Olympic Games. Previous analysis said that once the Games is over, joint military drills by the US and South Korea will soon resume under Washington's insistence and it is highly likely that Pyongyang returns the favor with new missile tests. In that case, tensions on the peninsula may quickly return to pre-Olympic levels. The relaxation of tensions between the two Koreas brought on by the Games would be short-lived and each side would go back to the cruel reality.
Now the situation is offering more options. Moon has been treating the North Korea delegation to great hospitality in the past few days. Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean leader and a special envoy for her brother, delivered Kim Jong-un's letter. This is seen as a symbol of improving ties between the two Koreas and an achievement for Moon's presidency if such an atmosphere continues.
Washington has a grudge over the improvement of inter-Korean ties at the Games. US Vice President Mike Pence arrived late to the reception that Moon hosted before the opening ceremony and stayed only five minutes, which was very impolite. This was interpreted by almost all media as a gesture by Pence. Although that gesture may contain various implications, showing dissatisfaction to the South Korean host was surely one of them.
If the rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang at the Games is temporary and fails to leave a positive legacy for future inter-Korean ties and instead becomes an obstacle in US-South Korea mutual trust, Moon would be throwing good money after bad. As Moon is a close ally of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, who advocated the "sunshine policy," and he himself called for better inter-Korean relations during the election, Moon may very much want to accept the invitation and visit Pyongyang. But whether he can make that trip depends on many factors.
If in the near future the situation on the peninsula returns to pre-Olympic levels, with joint US-South Korean military drills and continuous North Korean missile tests, especially nuclear tests, Moon's plan to visit Pyongyang will surely be spoiled by the change in domestic public opinion.
Whether Moon is able to demonstrate an ability to shape the situation on the peninsula this year is most critical.
Sending a delegation to South Korea and inviting Moon for a visit indicates that Pyongyang intends to continue suspending its nuclear and missile programs after the Games. Quite a few US and South Korean media believe Pyongyang wants to buy some time for its weapons program. No matter what, continuously suspending its nuclear and missile programs is inseparable from resolving the nuclear crisis. It is better than frequent tests.
The US holds the opinion that Pyongyang's suspension of its nuclear and missile program is unilateral and irrelevant to US-South Korean military drills. The US also demands Pyongyang's behavior point to the ultimate goal of abandoning nuclear weapons and only by so doing will there be a foundation for US-North Korean dialogue. From this perspective, Moon's next task would be to persuade Washington.
Moon has the cards in his hand to pressure Washington into making concessions or at least lowering the intensity of joint military drills. It's certainly not easy and it could be politically risky, but only when he makes that move can there be true hope of peacefully resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.
The situation on the peninsula is at a crossroads. Either Seoul shoulders its responsibility and pushes for the US and North Korea to meet each other halfway, forming the "double suspension" proposed by China and Russia and so creating positive conditions for a high-level visit to North Korea, or Seoul faces more intense confrontation with Pyongyang as both sides abandon a peaceful solution.
It is difficult to predict what will happen, but we intend to believe that it is more likely Moon will eventually visit Pyongyang. After weighing many factors, we value Moon's wish to continue relaxing tensions between the two Koreas. We hope his wish can translate into momentum and in turn bring about change.