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The rush to optimism

Apr 30,2018
Remarkable developments are taking place between South and North Korea after Friday’s third inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced a plan to invite security experts and journalists from South Korea and the United States to the shutting down of a major nuclear test site in Punggye-ri to demonstrate his sincerity about denuclearization. North Korea is not simply closing down a worn-out test facility, but shutting down an “active laboratory with two big underground tunnels,” Kim said.

U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be buoyed by Kim’s gestures enough to express a plan to have a summit with Kim earlier than expected. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the most hawkish U.S. officials, joined the chorus by saying that Kim is ready to help on denuclearization. All those signs appear to point to the direction of peace on the Korean Peninsula.

But we must not turn a blind eye to some grim realities. Despite all the hoopla over the inter-Korean summit, a few scores of nuclear weapons are still hidden deep in the mountains of North Korea. We have a long way to go until peace settles on the peninsula. As many experts point out, the two leaders’ joint statement lacked a detailed road map to denuclearization. That could mean that Pyongyang’s vow to denuclearize is mere gambit. And it puts the fate of the peninsula in the hands of Kim and Trump next month.

The government must not forget that we are a party directly involved in the nuclear crisis, not just a go-between, mediator or broker. We must draw an irreversible pledge from North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons. The Moon administration must prevent Washington from striking a deal with Pyongyang to settle for a nuclear freeze — instead of complete denuclearization — in return for Pyongyang’s promise to scrap ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Even if a denuclearization road map is decided upon between Washington and Pyongyang, carrying it out is another issue given North Korea’s past behavior. North Korea stealthily enriched uranium after vowing to give up its nuclear arms. The government must not be cheated by the North again.

Despite the two Koreas claiming they want a formal end to the Korean War of 1950-1953, we can expect nothing of the sort if the North-U.S. summit fails. If Seoul presses ahead with a declaration to end the war with Pyongyang regardless of such risks, it risks becoming a laughingstock. Nevertheless, the government is hastily pushing for inter-Korean exchanges even without any accomplishments in denuclearization. In an alarming move, it is preparing to resume operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which could lead to a serious violation of international sanctions.

North Korea cannot fundamentally change, as seen in Sunday’s Rodong Sinmun, which lambasted U.S. democracy. We must not accept Kim’s charm offensive as a transformation. We must not be overly optimistic. It is time for cool heads, along with warm hearts.

JoongAng Ilbo, Apr. 30, Page 30