[Editorial] Denuclearization is the end goal, not the starting point for inter-Korean negotiations

Posted on : 2018-02-13 18:37 KST Modified on : 2018-02-13 18:37 KST
President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with first vice director of the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers’ Party
President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with first vice director of the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers’ Party

The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics has made an inter-Korean summit a topic of serious discussion. South Korean President Moon Jae-in largely welcomed the idea while sounding a note of caution by suggesting that the two sides “create the right conditions to make the summit happen.” Moon must take into account the situation in the major powers around the Korean Peninsula, including deliberations with the US government under President Donald Trump.

The Korean Peninsula issue long ago ceased to be something that could be resolved through inter-Korean deliberations alone. But we must avoid the tack taken by some of South Korea’s conservatives, who insist that the summit can only happen if it is predicated on denuclearization. The Liberty Korea Party even said in an official statement that “a presidential visit to North Korea that does not assume the abolition of North Korea’s nuclear program is an act that aids the enemy,” which is no more than an opportunistic political attack.

Denuclearization is sure to be the finishing line of dialogue, and not the starting block. It is not realistic to demand that Pyongyang commit to denuclearization before the two sides have even sat down at the table. The plan to bring North Korea to its knees by toughening sanctions is not only impractical, but also escalates military tensions on the Korean Peninsula to an extreme. It forces both South and North Korea to take an incredible risk. Therefore, getting together to lower tensions and discuss denuclearization or any other topic along the way can be seen as a reasonable and legitimate choice.

If a summit takes place, it would only be natural for Moon to clearly state the South Korean position on denuclearization to Kim Jong-un. It would no doubt be wonderful if Moon could convince the North to promise to give up its nuclear weapons during that meeting, but that is obviously not very likely. Denuclearization is not something that can be accomplished with one fell swoop. It is a formidable challenge that must be tackled with tenacity and persistence.

Furthermore, it is not a matter that South and North Korea can address alone. The North’s development of nuclear weapons poses a military threat to the US. For there to be meaningful progress, therefore, North Korea-US talks and negotiations are essential. That is why the Moon administration must act as a mediator for North Korea-US contact and also win over the US and the other great powers if it is to pull off an inter-Korean summit.

According to a Feb. 11 report by a Washington Post reporter who interviewed US Vice President Mike Pence on his flight back to the US, Pence told Moon during their meeting that the US is willing to engage in unconditional dialogue with North Korea and that it supports inter-Korean dialogue after the Pyeongchang Olympics. On Feb. 6, Trump himself said that the US would take part in dialogue with the North when the time was right. Pence’s hardline behavior in South Korea seemed to even surpass the Trump administration’s basic stance. That should not be used to assess the direction of American policy.

If a summit takes place, denuclearization is only one of many matters for South and North Korea to discuss. In addition to humanitarian issues such as the reunions of the divided families, it is critical to discuss effective ways to reduce military tensions and prevent unplanned military clashes around the armistice line. None of this will be easy, but it is a road down which we must walk if we hope to reach an age of peace and reconciliation. We hope that the Moon administration will trust the people and keep moving down the road toward peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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