By Phil Stewart
SEOUL -South Korea will broach North Korea separately with two different audiences on Thursday, holding talks with Beijing’s top diplomat in China and with visiting U.S. military leaders in Seoul.
In China, talks are expected to include South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s hopes for a declaration to end the 1950-1953 Korean War. The conflict halted with an armistice and not a peace treaty.
In Seoul, U.S. and South Korean top brass are expected to discuss ways to strengthen a military alliance whose main goal is deterring a conflict with Pyongyang, and being prepared to fight one if that fails.
“Unfortunately, our mission to ensure peace on the Korean peninsula remains incomplete. There are piles of tasks ahead of us,” South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told U.S. and South Korean military leaders at a reception on Wednesday.
North Korea has so far rebuffed U.S. entreaties for diplomacy since President Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump, who had three summits with leader Kim Jong Un.
Seoul sees an “end of war declaration” as a way to build trust with Kim, restart stalled denuclearisation talks, and eventually move toward a lasting peace agreement.
But Moon, who has tried to engage with North Korea throughout his presidency, is running out of time to clinch an agreement before his term ends in May.
South Korean national security adviser Suh Hoon will have talks with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in the Chinese city of Tianjin on Thursday on North Korea, the presidential Blue House said.
Critics of Moon’s push are also concerned about the risk of giving Pyongyang a symbolic “end of war” declaration without getting anything concrete in return from Kim.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met Suh in Seoul on Wednesday and in a brief address later, renewed Washington’s commitment to South Korea’s defence.
On Thursday, Austin and U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will attend annual military talks with South Korea. The discussions are expected to cover an update to operational planning for a potential conflict with North Korea.
“It’s needed, given the circumstances and new capabilities that the alliances possesses,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We do this all the time.”
North Korea has tested new weapons systems in recent months, including a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency also cautioned in August http://www.reuters.com/article/northkorea-nuclear-iaea-idINV9N2IE02B that North Korea’s nuclear program was moving “full steam ahead” with work on plutonium separation, uranium enrichment and other activities.
In a meeting on Wednesday with General In-Choul Won, South Korea’s Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley emphasized the U.S. commitment to providing “extended deterrence” to South Korea – a reference to Washington’s pledge to defend its ally with nuclear weapons if necessary.
Another issue expected to top the agenda in Seoul is South Korea’s efforts to win wartime operational control of combined military forces.
Currently, a U.S. general would command those forces during a war. Progress toward that transition has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.