The date for President Moon Jae-in’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea has been set for Sept. 18-20.
It is good for leaders of both countries to meet often. But it is not good to give meaning to their meeting itself without dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue properly.
The upcoming summit, their third in five months, should produce substantial results.
However, the situation is not easy.
The North Korean leader reaffirmed his commitment to denuclearization, promising to continue working with the US to that end, Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s special envoy and national security adviser, said Thursday, announcing the results of his trip to the North Wednesday.
But what is needed is not a repeated reaffirmation of commitment, but concrete steps to carry out the commitment.
The special envoys had three missions: setting the date of the third inter-Korean summit, discussing inter-Korean exchanges and recreating conditions for the resumption of US-North Korea negotiations to dismantle the North’s nuclear program. The mediation task was the most crucial.
The denuclearization negotiations have stalled. Washington demanded Pyongyang take early denuclearization steps such as declaring its nuclear facilities, but the North refused while demanding the declaration of the formal end of the Korean War.
The results of special envoys’ trip do not mention the negotiations specifically. This issue will likely be taken up in the upcoming inter-Korean summit. In this light, their trip is disappointing. They succeeded in setting the summit date but ended up hearing Kim reiterate his commitment to denuclearization, though Kim has never been seen speaking of his commitment with his own mouth. Kim seems to be trying to keep pressing the South to try harder to improve relations between the two Koreas regardless of the issue of denuclearizing his country.
The biggest obstacle to the US-North Korea negotiations is distrust and doubt.
Washington doubts Kim’s denuclearization commitment. The North has threatend to scuttle the negotiations while refusing to hand the list of its nuclear facilities over to the US.
Pyongyang says it is regrettable for Washington to underestimate its denuclearization efforts, such as the release of American hostages, the destruction of a nuclear test site and the return of the remains of US soldiers killed in the Korean War.
It is important to restart the negotiations, but it is more important to move them in the right direction. If the North ever tries to buy time or ease sanctions by feigning denuclearization, that will only worsen the situation.
If history is any guide, the North will likely use the South as leverage to try to move the US in its favor when it is cornered or its ties with the US are strained. They are in such a situation now.
By the way, the South seems eager to use inter-Korean ties as a stepping stone to bring the US and the North back to the table.
Chung said before going to Pyongyang, “If necessary, we need to lead denuclearization negotiation through the development of inter-Korean relationship.”
The South and the North agreed to open their joint liaison office in the North’s border village of Kaesong before the third Moon-Kim summit. Seoul has persistently pushed for the opening of the office despite concern in the US, which maintains sanctions must be kept unless the North is denuclearized.
Prudence is warranted on the South Korean side. It must keep pace with the US in denuclearizing the North.
Prioritizing inter-Korean relations over denuclearization is risky in that Pyongyang may take them as a sign that the South may act on its behalf or even in its interests, even disregarding the US position.
It is important to revive the momentum of dialogue, but more important is where it will go. It is risky to attempt to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue only through inter-Korean ties. Moon must keep this in mind when he meets Kim for the third time.