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Experts divided on Seoul’s approach to inter-Korean cooperation

Experts discuss on Seoul`s approach to inter-Korean cooperation at a forum hosted by the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Experts discuss on Seoul`s approach to inter-Korean cooperation at a forum hosted by the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Amid President Moon Jae-in’s push for inter-Korean exchanges, security experts are divided on whether his cross-border projects will engage North Korea and bring about a breakthrough in the stalled denuclearization efforts.

In dealing with nuclear-armed Pyongyang, Seoul has stressed peace initiatives such as the reconnection of cross-border railways and the authorization of individual trips to the North for tourism purposes. At a forum hosted by the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul on Wednesday, some scholars echoed the government’s detente policy while others expressed concern that such projects could overshadow denuclearization efforts.

“North Korea’s attention is still directed at Washington, DC, not Seoul,” said Kim Sung-han, former vice minister of foreign affairs and now a graduate school dean at Korea University. “In these circumstances, it’s unlikely for the North to respond to (such proposals). Because that’s not what North Korea wants. ... What the North wants is to remove all UN-led sanctions against the country.”

Kim added that the South Korean government should not give up its role as a mediator between Pyongyang and Washington, despite the stalled talks since the Hanoi summit in 2018. Instead, Seoul should examine ways to persuade Pyongyang to accept Washington’s requests in return for sanctions relief and denuclearization.

Yun Duk-min, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and former president of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, stressed that the government needs to put its citizens’ security first, at a time when the North is ramping up its nuclear weapons capabilities.

“It is concerning that North Korea, nearing completion of the intercontinental ballistic missile technology to attack the US, could go all out,” said Yun. “Considering the circumstances, the government’s railway projects and individual tourism plan feel meaningless. The government needs to come up with a plan B to safeguard citizens, in the event of potential provocations from the North.”

He called for the government here to focus on establishing effective deterrence against the North, which could mean enhancing the country’s missile defense system and making sure the US “nuclear umbrella” can be trusted.

“International sanctions were the leverage that brought the North to the negotiation table,” said Yun, stressing that sanctions could bring about denuclearization as Pyongyang would have to weigh the cost of keeping nuclear weapons.

Dismissing concerns about Seoul’s military readiness, Suh Choo-suk, who served as vice defense minister from 2017-2019, said the government had stepped up military responses to the North’s provocations.

“I can assure you that military stability, with strategic deterrence (against the North) in cooperation with the US, has increased,” said Suh. “The government is not putting the nuclear issue behind it, but is working to achieve denuclearization together.”

With US-North Korea relations showing no signs of improvement, the expert said, the government should continue searching for ways to engage Pyongyang.

Suh suggested that reunions of separated families be arranged through videoconferencing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first-ever inter-Korean summit on June 15, 2000. He also suggested anti-virus cooperation as the most practical option in the current pandemic, one likely to engage Pyongyang.

Professor Kim Ki-jung of Yonsei University, who served as President Moon’s national security adviser, concurred.

“The US stance is ‘peace after denuclearization,’ and in this case, there is nothing Seoul can do in the meantime, until the US-North Korea denuclearization talks are over,” he said. “So Seoul is coming up with ideas and incentives for the North to respond. Our position is for peace and denuclearization to proceed in lockstep, together.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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