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Don’t lower your guard

Feb 18,2019
Concerns are rapidly growing over the Moon Jae-in administration’s rush to ease sanctions on North Korea ahead of a second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Monday, U.S. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a former presidential candidate in the 2016 election, and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez warned of the possibility of South Korean banks and companies becoming the targets of U.S. sanctions if South Korea hurriedly pushes to ease sanctions on the North. The Moon administration must pay heed to the warnings from the two influential senators.

On the same day, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun emphatically told a delegation of South Korean lawmakers that Seoul’s sanctions on Pyongyang should be lifted in accordance with the pace of international sanctions, though he did not oppose the rapid development of inter-Korean relations. His remarks represent deepening worries from not only the U.S. Congress but also from the U.S. administration about South Korea’s acceleration of rapprochement with the North. Nevertheless, the Moon administration and local governments alike are busy preparing diverse projects to promote inter-Korean exchanges as if the sanctions will be lifted very soon.

Of course, signs of a successful summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are plenty. Above all, Uncle Sam’s attitudes toward the recalcitrant state became flexible.

On Wednesday, Pompeo said the United States intends to reap desirable results in exchange for eased sanctions. His statement can translate into a big change in the Trump administration’s stance toward the North as he mentioned the possibility of easing sanctions and compensations for the first time since taking office.

After warning about the dangers of a rush to ease sanctions, Biegun joined the chorus. In a seminar at Stanford University last month, he denied that the U.S. government would do nothing until the complete denuclearization of North Korea. That suggests Washington’s readiness to accept what North Korea has offered so far: a phased denuclearization.

But there are many reasons for the U.S.-North summit slated for Feb. 27 and 28 to fail. After his recent three-day trip to Pyongyang, Biegun admitted he spent most of the time checking what North Korea really wanted rather than negotiating the steps North Korea should take to denuclearize. In other words, both sides could not reach an agreement even with less than ten days left until the second summit. Despite a second U.S.-North working-level meeting this week, a substantial agreement on denuclearization seems nearly impossible.

Out of a desperate need to score diplomatic points ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Trump could be tempted to brag about whatever results may come from the summit in Hanoi. But U.S. diplomacy is not entirely the president’s job as Congress can intervene at any time.
Our government must not accelerate inter-Korean exchanges due to its over-optimism. It must not lower its guard until the complete denuclearization of North Korea.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 18, Page 30