President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday reiterated that it is "unacceptable" for North Korea to possess nuclear weapons and said he has no intention of "easing sanctions for the sake of an inter-Korean summit."
Moon made the pledge in a meeting with the heads of the five major political parties at Cheong Wa Dae when he briefed them on a visit to the North by a five-member South Korean delegation. "Easing sanctions may be possible under an international agreement only when there is concrete progress" in U.S.-North Korean dialogue, he said. "The South Korean government is not in a position to unilaterally unravel the standalone sanctions."
North Korea is clearly cozying up to South Korea to buffer the impact of the sanctions and buy more time to develop its nuclear weapons, so Moon's latest comments are very welcome. Since the 1990s, North Korea has kept not a single promise to the U.S. or South Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program. From 2003 to 2008, it dragged out multilateral talks over the scrapping of its nuclear program while secretly bolstering its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
In 2008, it staged a show of destroying the cooling tower at its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, which got it removed from Washington's list of terrorism-sponsoring states. But shortly afterward, North Korea walked away from the six-party talks. And despite signing an agreement to allow nuclear inspectors into its borders to verify denuclearization, it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.
U.S. President Donald Trump said, "Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!" He is right to be skeptical. A high-ranking White House official said, "Talks will not continue if North Korea intends merely to buy more time to develop nuclear weapons. We all know we shouldn't make a sequel to a bad movie." And U.S. defense and intelligence officials all voiced skepticism during a recent Senate hearing.
North Korea has gone all out to develop nuclear weapons, an ambition that dates back to nation founder Kim Il-sung. It would be extremely naive to think that it will give them up. Kim Jong-un has embraced dialogue only because intensifying international sanctions now threaten to sink the impoverished country's economy, and dialogue with the U.S. and an inter-Korean summit will delay any immediate American pre-emptive attack. And if dialogue can ease sanctions, Kim will gladly buy more time.
The only leverage Seoul has against Pyongyang right now is sanctions. They must remain firmly in place as Seoul engages the North in dialogue to prevent Kim from making the wrong decisions. If he believes he can achieve both nuclear armament and the scrapping of sanctions, the crisis on the Korean Peninsula will only worsen. Kim must be forced to choose. That is the only way to achieve peace. And Moon must live up to his word that sanctions will not be eased for the sake of an inter-Korean summit.
National Security Council chief Chung Eui-yong visits the U.S. on Thursday and must clearly explain Moon's intentions to Trump. That will bolster trust between the two allies as they engage North Korea in talks. Close cooperation must continue as Seoul gears up for an inter-Korean summit, and Moon must let Trump know that he will not be left on the sidelines. The two allies must also discuss a joint response to North Korea's possible demand for a U.S. troop withdrawal. What is needed now is calm and unshakeable resolve. North Korea's true intentions will become clear soon enough.