The South Korean government sent a telephone message on Dec. 29 to Kim Yang-gon, secretary and director of the United Front Department of the North Korean Workers Party, and made an offer to North Korea for bilateral talks in January 2015. Next year marks the 70th anniversary of national liberation and the 70th year of the division of the Korean peninsula. Close attention is being paid to what effect the historical significance will have on the possibility of inter-Korean dialogue.
The timing of the offer is somewhat unusual. This year is coming to an end and the New Year’s address of the North, which shows its stance toward the South, is scheduled to be issued on Jan. 1. Experts consider the unusual offer as Seoul’s desire to be more active in inter-Korean relations in the upcoming year, when the Park Geun-hye administration passes the halfway point. Recently, South Korean Unification Minister Ryu Kil-jae also mentioned that the continuation of tight inter-Korean relations, which have been exacerbated by recent leaflet drops, is far from desirable.
Seoul is expected to bring the separated families issue to the fore if the North agrees to the talks. A high-ranking official in the South Korean government recently said that the issue is becoming more and more urgent, with separated families growing older. Therefore, the government may make a significant concession to Pyongyang on the condition that the issue is properly addressed. The concession he mentioned is considered to include lifting of the May 24 sanctions and resumption of the Mt. Kumgang tourism project.
Some experts even predict that the talks will lead to a summit meeting between the two Koreas. Both President Park Geun-hye and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un have been invited to the ceremony in Russia for the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII scheduled for May. Alternatively, the two leaders may meet with each other during the National Liberation Day celebrations on Aug. 15.
Expert consensus is that the North is likely to respond positively to the offer itself, because it has pursued better relations with the South throughout this year, despite some provocations. The isolation of the North as of late, which is accelerated due to the human rights issue and recent hacking of Sony Pictures, could act positively on the situation, too. On repeated occasions in the past, North Korea has come to the negotiation table when driven into a corner.
“I felt North Korea’s changing attitude toward South Korea during the course of my visits to the North,” said Kim Sung-jae, Unification Committee director and former minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism. He visited Pyongyang last month as the director of the Kim Dae-jung Academy to discuss the visit of Mrs. Lee Hee-ho, the wife of the late former President, to the North. He also traveled there on Dec. 24 at the invitation of Mr. Kim Yang-gon. At that time, the North Korean figure mentioned that he understood Seoul’s sincerity for better inter-Korean relations, and he had the same wish with the June 15 Joint Declaration commemorating its 15th anniversary in 2015.