Why is North Korea giving its neighbor the silent treatment?

South Korea initiated rare face-to-face talks with the North with no response so far. What the cold shoulder from the hermit kingdom might mean.

Bae Jae-man/AP
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (second from r.) speaks in a meeting with his senior secretaries at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on July 17, 2017.

Is North Korea agonizing? Just not interested? Something else?

At the start of the week, South Korea offered to hold rare face-to-face talks with North Korea at their shared border village in the Demilitarized Zone. One set of talks was proposed for Friday to discuss easing military confrontations and another on Aug. 1 to discuss restarting reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The day for the first talks came without a response from the North.

A look at what North Korea's silence may mean for new South Korean President Moon Jae-in's outreach to the North and future ties between the rival countries.

Why no response

Exactly how an overture such as Mr. Moon's would be reviewed is a mystery, as there is limited knowledge about the North's decisionmaking under ruler Kim Jong Un. Outside experts see Mr. Kim as the ultimate decisionmaker, with policy advice related to South Korea mainly coming from two bodies: a ruling Workers' Party organ called the United Front Department and the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea.

Pyongyang may be debating whether to accede to both sets of talks or just one; or what kinds of demands it would make for talks to be held. For instance, the North might have been deliberating whether it'll use the military talks to repeat its call for a suspension of regular South Korea-US military drills, a demand that Seoul will surely reject again, according to analysts.

Skepticism remains high

Analyst Park Hyung-joong at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification is skeptical about the prospects of talks. "It's South Korea that is desperate for talks right now, not the North. Pyongyang's goal is to maximize its nuclear ability so that it could alter political and security dynamics in the region – it wants to create more tension, while the South wants to reduce it," Mr. Park said. Some experts predicted earlier that North Korea would accept at least Friday's talks as it had previously stressed the need to ease animosities along the rivals' border.

The chances for the second talks were considered slimmer, as the North has repeatedly said it won't resume family reunions unless South Korea repatriates some high-profile North Korean defectors now living in the South.

"It's difficult for North Korea to either reject or accept the talks right away as there were some words it has spoken before. I think they have a lot in their minds," said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University.

No inter-Korean hotlines

Just to communicate about talks is challenging. South Korea's Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo Suk used a televised news conference to propose the military talks, as major cross-border communication hotlines are dormant following the North's fourth nuclear test in January 2016. There is little chance North Korean officials would miss it, because they closely follow and have commented on every major previous move by Seoul regarding Pyongyang.

Many analysts say it's highly unlikely that Moon's government would use any secret channel to try to realize talks. That could trigger a backlash from conservatives who argue it's time to pressure the North, rather than seek dialogue. In the past, the two Koreas sometimes resorted to behind-the-scene contacts to set up more high-profile talks. South Korean defense officials have refused to comment on whether they've made any clandestine attempts to reach out to the North this time.

Fate of talks

Despite the silence, many experts say North Korea will eventually come to the military talks, because it can use them as a venue to call for a suspension of propaganda loudspeaker broadcasts that both Koreas began at the border after the North's fourth nuclear test. It's widely believed the South Korean broadcast sting more in the strictly controlled North. Professor Koh Yu-hwan at Seoul's Dongguk University said North Korea is unlikely to commit to a meeting before August, when South Korean and US militaries have annual drills.

"It seems North Korea will likely prolong its wait-and-see approach and observe how things shape up after the August drills," Mr. Koh said. If held, the talks would likely start with rounds of working-level meetings between colonel-level officers. And if they continue, general-grade officers would later meet to try to work out steps to reduce tensions.

But they won't likely produce any major breakthrough if North Korea sticks to its demand for the end of South Korea-US drills or conducts major weapons tests. The outlook for family reunion talks is more pessimistic unless North Korea stops demanding the return of a dozen women who worked for a North Korean-run restaurant in China. The North says the women were kidnapped by Seoul agents.

But the North might think the talks could help pave the way for the restart of a now-stalled lucrative joint tourism project at its scenic Diamond Mountain, where most past family reunions took place, according to professor Chin Hee-gwan at South Korea's Inje University.

Prospect for overall ties

The prospects for Moon's efforts to improve ties with North Korea don't immediately appear bright. The North has higher expectations for what it can get from Moon, the first liberal leader in South Korea in about 10 years, and an elevated assessment of its own status as a nuclear weapons state. Moon will also be cautious about reaching out, because there are worries that his overture might weaken international pressure on the North.

The North's state media on Thursday described Moon's overall North Korea policy as "nonsense," noting that South Korea also supports US-led efforts to strengthen sanctions against the North. "The current government in the South is taking an outdated confrontational stance by dancing to the beat of the United States and conservative thugs," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial.

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