President Moon Jae-in said in a Cabinet meeting Tuesday that the meeting between the US and North Korean leaders in the Demilitarized Zone was “a de facto declaration of an end to hostile relations and the beginning of a peace era.”
The summit was a meaningful event, but no substantial steps to denuclearize the North have been taken at all.
If the hostile relations had ended, North Korea would have scrapped all of its nuclear weapons by now.
But North Korea has no intention of doing so. There was no mention of denuclearization at the Cabinet meeting.
A Cheong Wa Dae official said peace had effectively been achieved because a US president visited a front-line guard post and stepped into North Korean territory in civilian clothes. But that statement vastly exaggerated the significance of the meeting.
Few people would not wish for peace. But wishing alone will not make it happen. Moon probably knows very well what sort of peace the people want. When Pyongyang dismantles all of its nuclear arms, the door to peace will open and US-North Korea relations will enter a new era.
But it is impetuous to float an ad balloon touting the arrival of that new era of peace, when denuclearization negotiations have not even started yet.
Overstating the progress of the peace process could cause the negotiations to veer off the right path.
North Korea does not likely view the Panmunjom meeting as the beginning of peace. Pyongyang has argued that denuclearization is an issue between North Korea and the US, and has insisted that Seoul back away.
If South Korea is so captivated by the scene of a historic meeting that it prioritizes peace above denuclearization and lowers its guard in the area of national defense, peace will not come. Security issues must be viewed conservatively and with prudence, because lives and property are at stake.
President Moon speaks for South Korea regarding negotiations to denuclearize North Korea. The South Korean position is that the people cannot be taken hostage or held prisoner by the threat of the North’s nuclear weapons. Yet Moon seems to have placed greater emphasis on the showy side of the Panmunjom meeting than on the essentials -- the denuclearization negotiations.
An important job for the South Korean government is to watch carefully to see if the US-North Korea negotiations proceed in the right direction. Negotiations, if left entirely up to the two countries without South Korea’s involvement, will serve only their interests. In that case, South Korea could face an outcome it does not want.
Under a broad agreement between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom, working-level negotiations are expected to begin around the middle of this month.
Washington has so far insisted on a comprehensive “big deal” to achieve the goal of final, fully verified denuclearization -- often abbreviated FFVD. Pyongyang, on the other hand, wants sanctions relief in stages in exchange for small steps toward that goal.
The gap between those two positions remains as wide as ever.
If history is any guide, it is likely negotiations will get stuck once they reach a certain sensitive stage -- likely somewhere near the goal of denuclearization.
Several US news media outlets have raised alarm among South Koreans by publishing reports suggesting Trump might tacitly accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. The US State Department immediately denied it, but it is hard to erase our anxiety about the possibility of a half-baked deal that falls short of FFVD. North Korea must not be recognized as a nuclear state, tacitly or otherwise. That would only endanger South Korea.
No matter how difficult it was to clear the way for the revival of working-level negotiations, the principle of denuclearization must not be compromised. Washington and Pyongyang are expected to try to work out a road map on the working level, and then arrange a summit. In this process, South Korea would do well to serve as a mediator or facilitator for FFVD rather than pursuing peace at any price.
Of course it is important to start negotiations and sustain them, but the substance of those negotiations matters even more.
Crying out for peace, with calls for denuclearization missing or muted, would be like herding the people to the edge of a cliff. Peace under the threat of nuclear weapons is a mirage.