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[Editorial] Deceptive conciliation

North Korea attaches high price tag to collaboration with Moon’s peace agenda

President Moon Jae-in’s government appeared buoyed by the somewhat conciliatory tone of the statements issued last week by Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

She said in a statement Saturday that the North could agree to declare a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War as proposed by the South and even discuss holding an inter-Korean summit if Seoul treated Pyongyang with “impartiality” and respect. She also urged the South to drop its double standards -- for example, by ceasing to pursue its own arms buildup while denouncing as provocative what she called the North’s “self-defense” weapons tests.

The statement came a day after she said the end-of-war declaration that Moon proposed last week in his UN speech was a good idea and that the North was willing to discuss improving inter-Korean ties if Seoul ditched what she described as its hostile policy toward Pyongyang.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry was quick to welcome the statements from Kim as “meaningful.”

But the North still remains unresponsive to calls from the South through cross-border communication lines, tantalizing the Moon government, which is so eager to resume dialogue with Pyongyang.

A senior aide to Moon said Monday that Pyongyang needed to put its hotlines with Seoul back in operation first to proceed with consultations on ways to improve bilateral relations. He described the measure as a barometer of the North’s willingness to resume dialogue with the South.

The North unilaterally severed all cross-border communication channels and demolished an inter-Korean liaison office in its border city of Kaesong last year in anger at anti-Pyongyang leaflets flown across the border from the South. The moves further chilled inter-Korean relations, which had remained stalled since the summit between then-US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in early 2019 ended with no deal on how to denuclearize the North.

The communication lines went back online briefly in July before Pyongyang began refusing Seoul’s regular daily calls again in protest of the summertime joint military exercises between South Korea and the US.

Seoul seems poised to go all out to push ahead with Moon’s peace agenda for the peninsula if and when Pyongyang responds to its calls via bilateral communication channels. But the Moon government needs to take note of the price tag Pyongyang has attached to progress in the inter-Korean peace process.

By urging Seoul to drop its double standards and its hostile policy toward Pyongyang, the North was apparently asking it to stop military drills with the US and ensure the lifting of international sanctions on the impoverished regime in return for measures that fall short of complete denuclearization. The North seems to be attempting to draw out a response from the South by dangling the prospect of yet another inter-Korean summit in addition to the end-of-war declaration.

With his five-year tenure set to end in May, Moon appears increasingly impatient in wanting to restore the reconciliatory atmosphere forged between the two Koreas through three summits he held with Kim Jong-un in 2018.

The Moon administration has turned a blind eye to security threats posed by North Korea’s recent test-firing of cruise and ballistic missiles and new indications that the recalcitrant regime has reactivated its main nuclear complex within the past few months. Indeed, the administration decided last week to provide up to 10 billion won ($8.46 million) to help fund humanitarian aid programs for the North.

Moon’s imbalanced approach to inter-Korean reconciliation could run the risk of undermining Seoul’s vital alliance with the US, which remains determined to make no significant concessions to Pyongyang until it takes irrevocable and substantial steps toward discarding its nuclear arms programs. During their first in-person summit in Washington last week, US President Joe Biden and leaders from Australia, Japan and India, which form the Quad group, reaffirmed their commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.

Moon and Kim Jong-un might move to hold their fourth summit ahead of South Korea’s presidential election in March, partly due to their shared wish to see a candidate from Moon’s liberal ruling party win. But the meeting, which would likely address the denuclearization issue in a superficial manner and commit Seoul to making massive concessions to Pyongyang, would be far from conducive to bringing lasting peace to the peninsula.

By Korea Herald (