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[Editorial] Reenacted brinkmanship

Seoul’s stance should not be detached from reality amid US-NK confrontation

President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump on Saturday held their first talks over the phone since early May, amid Pyongyang’s increasing threat to return to provocations if talks with Washington remain stalled.

During the half-hour call held at Trump’s request, the two leaders agreed that the current situation on the Korean Peninsula was “severe” and “dialogue momentum should be maintained to achieve prompt results from denuclearization negotiations,” said a spokesperson for Moon. They also agreed to hold future phone conversations as needed.

Though it was not mentioned during the spokesperson’s briefing, Trump might have wanted to ensure Seoul would be in step with Washington in preparing for a possible breakdown in the talks with North Korea.

The North previously set a year-end deadline for the US to offer concessions in denuclearization talks, threatening to terminate dialogue and adopt a “new way” if the US refuses to change course.

Recently, the communist regime has shown signs of reactivating its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon and preparing for the resumption of the test-firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea’s ambassador to the UN, Kim Song, said Saturday that denuclearization was no longer on the negotiating table with the US.

On Sunday, the North disclosed that it has conducted a “very important test” at its western satellite launching site, claiming that the results of the test would change its “strategic position” going forward.

Trump came out last week to warn against possible provocations by Pyongyang ahead of the year-end deadline. He hinted at the possibility of using military force against the North if necessary, again referring to its leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man.” His remarks marked a departure from his reticence on Pyongyang’s previous moves to ratchet up tensions, including test-launches of short-range missiles and rocket systems on 13 occasions so far this year.

The North immediately reacted to Trump’s remarks. Park Jong-chon, chief of the General Staff of its Korean People’s Army, and First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui issued separate statements warning of “prompting corresponding actions” and a renewed war of words.

But the statements were seen to be well-coordinated not to go so far as to derail the negotiation process. Pyongyang apparently hopes there could be a last-minute breakthrough as Trump needs a deal to boast of when he enters his reelection campaign next year.

But their hope might prove misguided, given the ongoing impeachment proceedings against Trump are more likely to make it hard for him to conclude a half-baked deal with the North. Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s closest aides, said late last week that Trump would never hurry to reach an accord with the North and instead seek to achieve the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the recalcitrant regime.

It is unforeseeable how Trump would respond to Pyongyang’s decision to lift its moratorium on nuclear arms and long-range missile tests.

Amid rekindled tension between the US and the North, South Korea finds no part to play. Both Washington and Pyongyang have disregarded Seoul’s self-assumed role as arbitrator or facilitator of dialogue between them.

The Moon administration needs to recognize that adhering to a perception detached from reality would be of no help for resolving the North Korean nuclear problem.

Seoul has tried to appease Pyongyang despite the string of threatening acts by the North.

On top of missile and rocket launches, the North conducted artillery firing drills north of the western sea border with the South last month, in a clear violation of the inter-Korean military agreement signed in September last year. In October, Kim ordered the South Korean-built tourist complex at Kumgangsan to be torn down.

Turning a blind eye to Pyongyang’s misbehavior, the Moon government decided Friday to donate $5 million to the World Health Organization for a humanitarian assistance project in the North. There is nothing wrong with offering humanitarian aid, but the timing of the decision could make it seem like another attempt to placate the Kim regime.

This measure may only encourage Pyongyang to intensify its menacing tactics, while causing suspicion from Washington about the Moon administration’s desire to be in step with the US in dealing with the North.

Seoul needs to be more resolute in urging the North to stay on the track of dialogue and refrain from provocative acts, while maintaining a staunch defense posture in preparation for a possible rupture in denuclearization negotiations.

It should also step up efforts to prevent the South Korea-US alliance from becoming frayed by its misguided handling of an intelligence-sharing accord with Japan and a discord over Washington’s demand for a steep hike in Seoul’s share of the cost for stationing American troops here.
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