Recent developments show how complicated and painstaking dealing with North Korea is. They also attest to the need for the international community, especially key players like South Korea and the US, to renew the determination to disarm the North.
One big barometer of the development of the denuclearization work was the abortion of the plan of the North Korean leader to visit South Korea within this year. It further darkened the prospects for an early solution of the denuclearization issue.
President Moon Jae-in and his aides did not hide their desperation to realize the visit that the two leaders agreed to during their third round of summit talks in Pyongyang in September. Moon hoped to use what would be the first-ever visit to the South by a North Korean leader not only to improve inter-Korean relations, but also to revitalize stalled US-North denuclearization talks.
It is not hard to guess what kept Kim from making the landmark visit. First, Kim must have been wary of strong opposition from conservative forces in the South. He might have thought that protests of his visit, if not a direct threat to his security, could taint his image as an untouchable supreme leader within his country.
The delay also indicated that Kim was not yet willing to make key concessions in the denuclearization process, which has remained deadlocked due to a confrontation with the US over which side blinks first. Kim must have realized that considering a lack of a major agreement on denuclearization, the North Korean leader’s visit would be looked upon as a mere show.
On Kim’s part, low prospects for him to get a major economic reward for his visit to the South -- primarily due to ongoing international sanctions imposed on its nuclear and missile provocations -- also might have discouraged him from setting his feet in the southern side.
Despite the failure to realize Kim’s visit to South Korea this year, inter-Korean peace and reconciliation programs have made positive strides in recent weeks.
Most symbolic was the verification of the demolition of 10 guard posts on either side of the Demilitarized Zone. Groups of soldiers from each side visited the other side’s territory to inspect the sites where the posts had been.
The removal of the posts was one of the measures Moon and Kim agreed on to ease military tension on the border, prevent accidental clashes and build mutual confidence. Other measures have included disarming the Joint Security Area in the truce village of Panmunjeom and designation of buffer zones along the border.
The two Koreas are expediting peace and reconciliation programs in nonmilitary areas as well. They have agreed to break ground next week for construction to connect cross-border railways and roads.
Sports officials from the two sides agreed they will hold a three-way meeting with the International Olympic Committee early next year to discuss a joint bid for the 2032 Summer Games. The two sides are also holding talks on health care and forestry cooperation.
The warm relations between the two Koreas offer a stark contrast to the continuation of tense relations between the US and the North. It has already been two months since they held the last high-level talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong-chol in Pyongyang.
A series of actions the US government took last week demonstrated its unflagging resolve to maintain “maximum pressure” on the North until it takes substantive disarmament steps.
The US blacklisted Choe Ryong-hae, one of Kim’s highest ranking advisers, and two other senior officials for human rights abuses and censorship. Washington also maintained its designation of North Korea as a violator of religious freedoms.
All these US actions demonstrate that the US does not intend to loosen pressure on the North unless it denuclearizes and improve its human rights conditions. In other words, improvement of inter-Korean relations has little to do with a change in US attitude toward the Pyongyang government.
This calls on Moon to moderate his moves to improve ties with the North, some of which have already caused concerns about possible creation of cracks in the international sanctions on the North. There should be an effective balance between carrots from the South and sticks from the US.