Moon Was Wise to Respond Cautiously to N.Korean Invite

      February 12, 2018 13:41

      North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent an invitation via his sister Yo-jong to Pyongyang to President Moon Jae-in on Saturday, but sanctions against North Korea will only intensify after the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang end. The North is showing no intention of scrapping its nuclear weapons and missile programs, and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises will resume in full force once the Olympics are over. Kim Jong-un is merely trying to use the South Korean government as a shield to protect him against intensifying international pressure, and he thinks the most effective way to do that would be to hold an inter-Korean summit. It was just a matter of time before the North Korean leader asked Moon to visit.

      Kim is betting on past patterns. But when the first inter-Korean summit happened in June 2000, North Korea had frozen its nuclear power plant under the Geneva Accords, while the second summit in October 2007 took place after Seoul and Pyongyang signed an agreement on nuclear disarmament. Now the situation is completely different. The North has reneged on each of its previous pledges, and Kim Jong-un has repeatedly tested nuclear weapons and fired long-range missiles and now boasts that he is capable of attacking the mainland U.S.

      Moon can only visit North Korea on one condition -- that Kim agrees once and for all to give up his nuclear weapons. Only then can inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearization progress in tandem. If that happened, everyone would be delighted.

      But everybody knows North Korea has no intention of scrapping its nuclear weapons right now. The very day Moon received the invitation, the North vowed to "quantitatively and qualitatively bolster" its nuclear capabilities. This is clearly aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington. The U.S. is wise to the ruse. Speaking about the possibility of meeting with North Korean officials, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said that he would "wait and see" but use any opportunity to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. "The pressure will continue on them, economically and diplomatically, until that’s accomplished," he said. It was a warning that North Korea need not try to buy time and weaken sanctions by pretending to extend an olive branch. But Pence was also warning Seoul not to be fooled by refusing to attend a banquet at the Winter Olympics where he could have met with the high-level North Korean delegation.

      This may be one reason that Moon responded in such a lukewarm fashion to the invite, telling Kim Yo-jong only, "Let's create the conditions to make it possible." A Cheong Wa Dae official said, "The conditions refer to dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington." No peace gesture offered by the North would be genuine unless it includes a pledge to scrap its nuclear weapons.

      But the invitation must be very tempting, and there is a chance that the government may yet grow impatient and end up taking the bait. Another serious concern is the government underestimates of North Korean threat. Moon apparently did not mention the nuclear issue once during his two-hour meeting with the North Korean delegation, fearful of agitating his guests. But that is no way to take control of inter-Korean affairs.

      Still, things seem to be changing. Previous inter-Korean summits were held because South Korean presidents practically begged for them. But this time things were different, and Kim Jong-un sent his own sister to deliver his invitation. This shows how desperate North Korea is. Experts say North Korea may see a drop in exports of up to 90 percent this year due to sanctions, which are unprecedented in their severity. The sanctions are the only reason North Korea decided to participate in the Winter Olympics, which means they hold the key to resolving the nuclear impasse. North Korea is trying all it can to weaken the impact of the sanctions. Moon must be sure never to fall into the trap.

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