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North and South Korea Are Talking Again

Pyongyang’s food crisis may have spurred the latest diplomatic opening.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
The South Korean president speaks at the White House.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a Medal of Honor ceremony for Army Colonel Ralph Puckett in the East Room of the White House in Washington on May 21. Stefani Reynolds/Pool/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A thaw on the Korean Peninsula, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visits Vietnam, and Iran throws doubt on nuclear talks.

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A thaw on the Korean Peninsula, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visits Vietnam, and Iran throws doubt on nuclear talks.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Inter-Korean Ties Improve After Frosty Year

On again, off again relations on the Korean Peninsula appear to be back on for the time being as diplomatic avenues reemerge after a year of explosive disagreements.

Relations reached a low point in June 2020 after North Korea blew up a liaison office in reaction to the floating of anti-regime propaganda leaflets across its border. The violent display came as Pyongyang disconnected a communications hotline with Seoul, further setting the two countries adrift.

On Tuesday, the hotline was restored to full function, and on Wednesday, Reuters reported talks were progressing further. There are reportedly plans to restore the demolished liaison office and to hold a leaders summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Humanitarian crisis? Pyongyang doesn’t usually declare its motives publicly, but the timing of the overture suggests desperation may have played a part. Cut off from the world under international sanctions, the Kim regime has few friends. In June, Kim admitted to a “tense” food crisis developing in the country, and experts speculate the diplomatic opening could provide an avenue for humanitarian aid to pass over the border.

How its population has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic is less clear; it has yet to officially report a single case.

For South Korea’s president, it’s a chance to regain control of the peace process after he was sidelined by the United States in favor of one-on-one diplomacy between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump. Indulging in statecraft is also an opportunity for Moon to draw the focus away from his domestic troubles as he enters the final months of his presidency.

Hot housing. Moon has been criticized for presiding over a runaway housing market—one he promised to tame in his 2017 campaign. As Bloomberg reports, Moon’s attempts to tackle real estate speculation have largely failed. The average price of an apartment in Seoul—where half the country’s population lives—is now roughly $950,000, a 90 percent price increase since Moon took office.

Coronavirus ups and downs. His government has also been taken to task for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas the country was held up globally as an example of effective public health policy at the outset of the pandemic, South Korea saw its largest daily increase in cases on Wednesday, mostly driven by the more contagious delta variant.

South Korea’s early success in curbing the virus appears to have been its undoing when vaccines became available. After falling to the back of the line on vaccine acquisition, the country is now just catching up, but only 25 million shots have arrived of the 190 million doses ordered. At present, only 35 percent of South Koreans have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among G-20 nations.


What We’re Following Today

Austin in Vietnam. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in Vietnam today for talks with his counterpart, Gen. Phan Van Giang, as well as meetings with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. It’s the first high-level visit to the country from a U.S. official since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January. Austin’s visit comes soon after a U.S. shipment of 5 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Vietnam as the country deals with a new outbreak of the virus. Roughly one third of the country’s total cases have been recorded in the last five days.

China’s new ambassador. Qin Gang, China’s new ambassador to the United States, begins his first full day at his post following his arrival in Washington on Wednesday. In a departure from his predecessors in the position, Qin does not have a background in U.S. affairs, instead proving himself as chief of protocol and as head of the information office at the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry. Qin replaces Cui Tiankai, who held the title as China’s longest-serving Washington ambassador. Qin’s U.S. opposite in Beijing has yet to be announced, although Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is widely tipped for the role. 

Iran talks. On Wednesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chastised outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet for its engagement with the West, state media reported, casting doubt on the future of nuclear talks when the more conservative Ebrahim Raisi takes office next week.

“In this government, it became clear that trust in the West does not work, and they do not help, and they strike a blow wherever they can. And if they do not strike somewhere, it is because they cannot,” Khamenei said, adding the U.S. side “did not take a single step forward” in recent negotiations in Vienna. The U.S. State Department has rejected the assertion, saying it is ready to return to talks on restoring the multilateral agreement.


Keep an Eye On

China-Taliban ties. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed a Taliban delegation to the port city of Tianjin, China, in a sign of warming ties as regional powers prepare for an Afghanistan without U.S. and NATO troops. Wang described the group as a “pivotal military and political force” in Afghanistan and would play a key role in advancing the “process of peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction.” Wang also found time to criticize the United States, saying the recent troop withdrawal “reveals the failure of America’s policies and offers the Afghan people an important opportunity to stabilize and develop their own country.”

Long-term immunity. The efficacy of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at preventing infection drops from 96 percent to 84 percent over six months, data from a new study revealed on Wednesday. The Pfizer-funded study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, suggests an overall efficacy of 91 percent over the course of six months. Although still high, the study’s authors note a continued decline in efficacy could necessitate a third booster shot.


Odds and Ends

Stand-up electric scooters, seen as the scourge of city streets by some urban dwellers, can now claim a new function: getaway vehicle. The Chaumet jewelers in Paris were the victims of a daring heist on Tuesday, the Guardian reports, when a middle-aged man in a suit and tie brandished a knife to steal jewels worth as much as $3.5 million from the store before making his escape via electric scooter. The man was given an unwitting assist by Belgian actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme, who drew the attention of would-be witnesses as he visited a nearby optician at the same time.

Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of Paris’s 8th arrondissement, where the jeweler is located, called the robbery “mind-boggling, daring, unprecedented, and regrettable.” French police on Wednesday said they had since arrested two suspects in relation to the robbery and have recovered a “substantial part” of the jewel haul.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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