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No neighbor left behind

May 05,2018
A great game is afoot on the Korean Peninsula after last week’s watershed summit. Pyongyang and Washington are working hard to make the meeting between North Korean Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump equally meaningful. The two sides reportedly moved up the summit date to May 20 instead of later in the month or early June, suggesting some progress in pre-talk agenda-setting. Trump indicated that his meeting with Kim could take place in the border village of Panmunjom instead of a location outside the peninsula, raising expectations about a successful outcome.

There are lingering suspicions about North Korea’s genuine commitment to denuclearization. Skeptics doubt Kim’s regime will easily part with its nuclear weapons and suspect some kind of scheming. Others believe China could suddenly veto against a permanent peace arrangement and splash cold water on denuclearization talks.

But the recent overtures from Pyongyang raise more hope than worry. During his private conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim reportedly said he envisions a Vietnam-like opening of the North’s economy. For such reform to occur, though, North Korea must mend ties with the United States, and the only way to do so is to surrender its weapons program.

There is speculation that Pyongyang agreed to Washington’s terms for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” and is ready to return home three American citizens held in North Korea. As the main mediator, Seoul must ensure that Kim stays committed to his promise and tend to other neighbors to ensure nothing goes wrong. The 1950-53 Korean War ended through outside intervention and inevitably requires aid from neighboring powers if the peninsula is to become nuclear-free.

One day after the Moon-Kim summit, a Chinese aircraft entered South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone, suggesting Beijing’s displeasure with the joint statement that indicated the two Koreas and United States could work on a peace treaty without China. President Xi Jiniping accepted a call from Moon eight days after the meeting and sent his foreign minister, Wang Yi, to Pyongyang, which all could indicate Beijing’s anxiety about the enlarged role of Washington. Seoul must make sure Beijing and Tokyo do not feel left out.

At the same time, the government must pay equal attention to drawing united support on the home front. There should be no difference between the conservatives and liberals on the issue of denuclearization and permanent peace. We must be united and watch for any loopholes so that this historical momentum does not get ruined by any unexpected upsets.

JoongAng Sunday, May 5, Page 34