When Hot Air Means Progress

      September 20, 2018 13:26

      President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in an atmosphere of great conviviality in Pyongyang over the last couple of days. Kim is to visit South Korea before the end of this year, and it is no small matter if the leaders meet regularly to try and resolve 70 years' worth of differences. "We have agreed to make the Korean Peninsula a land of peace that is free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threat," Kim said. That is an important commitment and the first time that a North Korean leader made such direct comments in public.

      What was entirely absent from their joint declaration on Wednesday was a commitment to concrete steps toward denuclearization. The North offered to destroy a missile engine test facility and launch pad in Tongchang-ri and permit international inspectors to verify that. It also offered to destroy its main nuclear facility in Yongbyon "if the U.S. takes corresponding measures."

      But the North already promised demolish the Tongchang-ri facility during the summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in June and has started doing it. It already has mobile missile launchers, so it no longer needs the launch pad. The Yongbyon nuclear facility includes the same 5-MW reactor that was the subject of negotiations during the first nuclear crisis back in 1993 plus the adjacent plutonium reprocessing facility. But North Korea now enriches uranium God knows where else to build nuclear bombs. In other words, the North has offered up nothing of great value.

      At the center of North Korea's nuclear weapons program are scores of warheads, fissile materials and underground facilities for uranium enrichment. The U.S. wants North Korea to report them, but the North Korean offers entirely, and deliberately, miss the mark.

      Yet while denuclearization progresses at a snail's pace, steps toward cross-border economic cooperation are racing ahead at lightning speed. Moon and Kim agreed to hold a ground-breaking ceremony later this year to reconnect railways severed during the Korean War, while talking already about reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resuming cruise ship tours to the North's Mt. Kumgang resort, which were halted in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot a South Korean tourist dead. They also want to talk about building more joint economic zones.

      None of those projects can proceed as long as sanctions against the North remain in place, so what is the point of breaking ground on them? To be sure, the two leaders said the projects would go ahead "when conditions become ripe," but they seem to feel that ripeness is a few weeks away this harvest season. If the South Korean government really wants to pursue those projects, it should prod North Korea to take concrete denuclearization steps, but there was no mention of that, except for a vague claim by Moon's national security adviser that more had been agreed than meets the eye.

      Moon said in an interview early this month with Indonesian media that his goal is to make "irreversible progress" in denuclearization and establish a peace framework on the Korean Peninsula by the end of this year. But the summit declaration focuses only on cross-border economic projects.

      Still, Kim's visit to South Korea would be a monumental development in inter-Korean relations, just as Moon stepping briefly over the border at Panmunjom in April was a milestone event. But as long as North Korea's nuclear weapons remain, Kim's visit to South Korea will produce little more than another gust of warm atmosphere.

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