Moon's Envoys to N.Korea Must Not Repeat Old Mistakes
President Moon Jae-in is sending a five-member delegation to North Korea who hope to meet leader Kim Jong-un and broker nuclear talks with the U.S. It is headed by National Security Council chief Chung Eui-yong and National Intelligence Service Director Suh Hoon, who will spend two days in Pyongyang. Chung oversees the Moon administration's diplomacy with the U.S., while Suh was involved in the first and second inter-Korean summits. Yun Kun-young, a Cheong Wa Dae official who is taking a personal letter from Moon to Kim Jong-un, is a key aide to the president. The fact that Moon is sending all three demonstrates he really wants to focus on the North's nuclear weapons program. If Kim clearly states his willingness to get rid of it, the impasse could finally be broken, paving the way not just for an inter-Korean summit but also talks with the U.S.
But the outlook is dim. North Korea's Foreign Ministry said only Saturday, a day before Cheong Wa Dae announced the special delegation, that it will not sit face to face with the U.S. at the negotiating table if any preconditions are attached. In other words, North Korea will not discuss denuclearization. Instead, Pyongyang repeated that it wishes to hold "arms reduction" talks with the U.S. between two nuclear-armed states. Still, Kim Jong-un is cornered. His impoverished regime faces unprecedented international sanctions, and the threat of a U.S. military attack is more real now than ever. Kim will try to engage the Moon administration to help shield him from intensifying sanctions. But to do that, he will try and skirt the issue of denuclearization and urge the special delegation to halt joint military exercises in return for just a moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches. He may also throw in some carrots in the form of resuming reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and prod the South for a cross-border summit. But any offer by the North is a delaying tactic as long as it does not include the prospect of denuclearization.
The problem is that the Moon administration will be very tempted by such offers. Already a lot of officials here believe it would be better to give up pushing North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons and pursue a peace framework while acknowledging the North as a nuclear-armed state. But that would be tantamount to accepting South Korea's fate as a nuclear hostage. Although nobody will say it out loud, the government could start garnering support for such a view once the special delegation returns. The ruling party will demand the South Korean public choose between war or peace, while the left-leaning broadcast news media will most likely side with it.
It will never work. During the first nuclear crisis back in 1994, a surprise visit to North Korea by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter is widely thought as having allowed the nuclear dilemma to fester. It ended up causing the world to underestimate the nuclear weapons threat and gave Pyongyang more time to develop a bomb. After the first historic inter-Korean summit in 2000, North Korea conducted several nuclear tests. Despite that, in the second summit in 2007, then President Roh Moo-hyun did not even mention the nuclear issue to then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The South Korean delegation must be on its toes so that these mistakes never happen again.
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