South Korea says back channels with North Korea have collapsed

Seoul: On the eve of President Donald Trump's first visit to South Korea, tensions remain critical because secret back channels with North Korea have collapsed, says South Korea's First Deputy Chief of National Security Strategies, Sang-chui Lee.

Mr Lee, whose post is similar to that of a deputy minister, said North Korea's nuclear tests had added to the tensions on the Korean peninsula due to the vast conventional forces that have long been posed against one another across the Demilitarised Zone that has marked the border between the two nations since the end of the Korean War.

But he said until recently effective back channels existed between the two armed forces.

"I served for 20 years as the [South Korean] representative whenever there were set military talks between the north and south," he said during an interview with Fairfax Media at the Blue House, the South Korean equivalent to the White House.

"Whenever the two countries' relations were in difficult straits, in secret our two militaries would meet and would use channels to mitigate and resolve these crises, however currently there is no such mechanism in place.

"However currently all the communication channels have been cut off and with the heightened tensions on the peninsula there is always the possibility of clashes, and with the lack of communication those accidental clashes may escalate into armed conflict ... so I believe the situation is very serious."

On his arrival on Tuesday in South Korea, Mr Trump is expected to visit Camp Humphries, which lies south of Seoul, rather than the DMZ, which is an hour's drive north of the South Korean capital. The following day he will give a critical address to the National Assembly.

Mr Lee said Mr Trump's visit was critical in demonstrating the "ironclad" alliance between the US and South Korea and to help deter North Korea from further nuclear "provocations".

The Trump administration's management of its crucial alliance with South Korea has been criticised this year. In April as North Korea's nuclear testing regime accelerated, Mr Trump shocked some observers by attacking the US trade agreement with South Korea. He has been criticised for his bellicose Tweets threatening North Korea and for his administration's failure to appoint an ambassador to South Korea.

But Mr Lee said cooperation and coordination between the two nations had not been disturbed.

"We should not simply look at President Trump's wording in itself," he said. "We should take into consideration also the messaging by diplomatic staff, represented by Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson and [that of] Secretary of Defence [Jim] Mattis as well, so we need to have a comprehensive view of the entire US government's policy."

Mr Lee dismissed the assertion by some analysts that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un could never be induced to relinquish his nuclear weapons.

"Many state with finality that Kim Jong-un will never give up nuclear weapons, but I believe strategy is imposing my will upon the other when they do not want to act. So I believe Kim Jong-un will not want to give up nuclear weapons but we have to create a situation where he has no choice but to renounce nuclear weapons, that is the definition of strategy."

For the strategy to work Mr Lee said the international community led by the United States with China, Russia and Japan had to maintain sanctions and pressure upon the North Korean regime to induce it to engage in negotiations. Once in negotiations the international community had to reassure the regime of its own security.

He said the North and South Korea needed to begin parallel bilateral talks with a view to finally ending the stand-off with a peace treaty rather than an armistice.

All this, he said, would take time, diplomatic delicacy and patience.

Mr Trump will visit China, Vietnam and the Philippines after his time South Korea.

This story South Korea says back channels with North Korea have collapsed first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.