By Kang Seung-woo
The prospect of an inter-Korean summit appears to be fading as quickly as it appeared, experts say.
The United States, South Korea's military ally, and North Korea engaged in a diplomatic tit-for-tat over the weekend leaving Seoul, once again, in an awkward position.
"Increased U.S.-North Korean tension always causes problems in inter-Korean relations," wrote Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, in an email interview.
U.S. President Barack Obama Friday ordered sanctions against the North for its alleged hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment and they targeted the North's Reconnaissance General Bureau, Pyongyang's primary intelligence organization, along with two trading companies and 10 individuals. Following the announcement of the sanctions from Washington, Seoul welcomed the move, describing them as "appropriate."
The North's foreign ministry criticized the new sanctions, saying the U.S. move reflects its long-running hostility toward Pyongyang.
In his New Year address, the North's leader Kim Jong-un proposed that a high-level summit should take place, prompting the government to respond with a dose of skepticism that dialogue should begin between lower-level contacts.
"The North may attempt to engage South Korea in order to increase its pressure on the White House, but at this time, there's almost zero hope of making any headway in that regard, so the North's incentive to engage South Korea is reduced accordingly," said the leader of the U.S.-based non-profit research center.
He added that the North's plan was rendered meaningless, so its "motivation is strictly tactical and will be determined primarily by how Cheong Wa Dae decides to proceed."
Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said, "The chances of improving inter-Korean relations are not high."
He continued, "The North Korean leader stressed the need to improve bilateral relations without depending on a foreign country, or the U.S., but the North Korean regime is expected to raise the issue of the statement supporting the sanctions."
Diplomatic pundits say the U.S. government put a brake on rapid improvement in inter-Korean ties, fearing that progress in the relations may offer no excuse for the U.S. military presence including an advanced missile system in Northeast Asia.
"Should tensions ease in inter-Korean relations, the Korea-U.S. alliance mainly based on the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK)) could weaken and have trouble in containing the rise of China because the U.S. attempts to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean soil, stressing the role of USFK," said Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.
An Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies, commented, "The U.S. seems to have reached the decision to portray the North as a regional troublemaker because inter-Korean reconciliation can reduce its leverage in Northeast Asia in its pursuit of the pivot to Asia policy."
Analysts said that the U.S. move has more to do with U.S. domestic politics than the interests of South or North Korea.
Hong commented, "The decision was based on political considerations for Obama to fend off the notion that Obama is a lame duck."
Along with the U.S. sanctions, the Park Geun-hye administration's handling of the issue does not help improve the bilateral rapport.
"Do we really need to issue the statement supporting the sanctions, with both Koreas about to hold dialogue?" Hong said, adding that the government is too dependent on the U.S.
He continued, "I am wondering if the South Korean government wants to mend ties with the North."
Chang said, "The Park government lacks strategic thinking in resolving North Korea issues."
"President Park plans to focus on North Korea issues this year, but she appears to have no mid-to-long term strategy because her administration is just pushing for the North to change its attitude."