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[Editorial] Back to square one

Summit mediation has no merits so long as Kim not committed to denuclearization

President Moon Jae-in has bet again on mediating another inter-Korean summit to revive stalled nuclear negotiations between the US and North Korea.

“Now is the time to prepare in earnest and push for another summit between South and North Korea,” Moon said at a meeting with senior secretaries Monday.

Nothing would be more desirable than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un accepting Moon’s offer and holding his third summit with US President Donald Trump to take sincere steps to denuclearize in return for sanctions relief. But this is but wishful thinking.

In a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly last week, Kim did not mention denuclearization once. He said the US demands at the Hanoi summit went against the nation’s fundamental interests, and vowed to crush sanctions with self-reliance efforts if the US continued to make unreasonable demands in return for easing them.

Trump vowed to maintain sanctions against North Korea until it denuclearizes completely and sticks to a package deal, rejecting the sort of phased denuclearization the North wants.

Kim called for a change in the US position, vowing not to beg for sanctions relief.

Moon said Kim had clarified his firm commitment to denuclearize and establish peace. But his speech contained no such statement. On the contrary, Kim said he would not make the slightest concession or compromise when it came to his country’s fundamental national interests.

Kim did not mention inter-Korean summits either. He demanded that the South stop depending on foreign powers and do everything it can to improve relations unilaterally with the North. In a nutshell, Kim told Moon to take his side and speak for him.

South Korea cannot be a neutral mediator or facilitator when it comes to denuclearization negotiations. It is under direct threat from these North Korean nuclear weapons.

The Moon administration has acted as if it were a neutral mediator. But Trump did not appear to treat Moon as a trustworthy mediator. Moon had a one-on-one summit with Trump on Friday -- for just two minutes. Trump has emphasized the right kind of negotiation, rather than dialogue itself.

Kim said sarcastically in the speech that the Moon administration must quit acting like an officious mediator or facilitator.

Both Washington and Pyongyang effectively snubbed Moon’s mediation. Kim even rebuked Moon with the sarcastic remarks. He insulted Moon and South Korea as well, apparently because Moon failed to mediate a deal to his liking. And yet Moon made not a single reference to the insult.

In anticipation that this situation might happen, many experts and members of the public had urged the Moon administration to concentrate more on denuclearizing the North rather than on appeasing it and mediating summits. But the administration did not listen. It acted as if it had done everything it could once it arranged a summit between Trump and Kim, and instead focused on relations with the North. It even sought exemptions from sanctions to better ties with Pyongyang.

Its unclear attitude toward the denuclearization of North Korea has eventually brought the situation back to the starting point. Now Moon is going to try to mediate again.

His role as a mediator looks inevitable and plausible. But it has limitations. Mediation cannot but fail as long as Kim is not definitely committed to denuclearizing his country.

In March last year, Director of the National Security Office Chung Eui-yong delivered to the White House a message that Kim was committed to denuclearization, and Trump’s summits with Kim in Singapore and then in Hanoi followed. However, the Hanoi summit nearly two months ago collapsed without a deal due to Kim’s dubious commitment to denuclearization.

Dialogue is needed, but dialogue just for the sake of dialogue is a hoax. It can complicate the North Korean nuclear issues. Brokering a summit should not become a goal. The point is progress in denuclearization.

The Moon administration must prepare sufficiently to mediate dialogue. Ill-prepared dialogue will not only aggravate the alliance with the US, but also deliver the wrong message to Pyongyang.

The harder the South tries to just mediate a summit, the more likely it is that it will be dragged along by the North.

The Moon administration should not forget what brought Kim to dialogue. It was tightly coordinated sanctions and pressure rather than Moon’s strategy to appease the North and broker summits. The administration must not undermine sanctions and the US alliance under the pretext of mediating summits.