Seoul Must Stay the Course in Negotiations with N.Korea

      March 30, 2018 13:42

      The government announced Thursday that an inter-Korean summit will take place in the border peace village of Panmunjom on April 27, though it did not say what exactly will be on the agenda, which one might have thought was the most important question. Cheong Wa Dae mumbled something about differences in the wording, but some words are big and others are small, and "denuclearization" is the one that matters most.

      There is less than a month left to work it out. The upcoming summit takes place under fundamentally different circumstances than the two previous ones. Former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun focused on aid to North Korea and cross-border exchanges, while turning a blind eye to the North's nuclear weapons program. As a result, South Korea ended up virtually financing North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile tests. Now North Korea purports to be a nuclear-armed power, so there can be nothing more vital on the agenda than that. North Korea must agree to scrap its nuclear weapons, while South Korea must not put cross-border exchanges or support for the North above the most important issue.

      In his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said, "The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved if South Korea and the U.S. respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability." He added, this requires "phased and simultaneous steps for peace." That is the same tactic Kim's father used, where he would trade a gradual freezing and scrapping of the North's nuclear weapons for eased sanctions, economic aid and security guarantees and then renege on every one of his pledges. Nobody in their right mind would fall for that ruse again.

      Except perhaps Cheong Wa Dae. Just a few days ago, Cheong Wa Dae touted its intention to untie the Gordian knot by proposing a "package deal" involving the scrapping of the North's nuclear weapons program in exchange for a peace treaty. Now it is haring after Kim's latest offer of a "phased" approach. How soon before that becomes doctrine of the week at the presidential office?

      International efforts to get rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons will face serious complications if Cheong Wa Dae starts backing Kim's proposal. The U.S. is pushing for a speedy, "Libyan" style solution of "complete, verifiable and irreversible" denuclearization of North Korea. But if Pyongyang has Beijing and Seoul on side, it may just stall by offering to get rid of its long-range missiles. And since the U.S. holds mid-term elections in November, U.S. President Donald Trump may feel he can accept such a deal and sell it as a massive diplomatic success.

      This is precisely the moment when Cheong Wa Dae should focus on denuclearization. Everything else can be discussed later. If Kim meets with Trump and agrees to dismantle his nuclear weapons and the U.S. offers a security guarantee, Kim will have plenty of time to discuss inter-Korean exchanges on other occasions.

      President Moon Jae-in said in a meeting with lawmakers earlier this month that Seoul has no intention of easing sanctions against North Korea and will not accept a nuclear-armed North. Kim is rushing to the dialogue table because his regime is collapsing under the pressure of intense international sanctions. If the sanctions continue, North Korea knows it will start to see fissures developing in its system. That is why they are the only way to resolve the nuclear standoff. If Cheong Wa Dae weakens and agrees to a gradual tit-for-tat, it will not only open a major loophole in international pressure against North Korea, it will also give China an excuse to follow suit. The results would be catastrophic.

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