The icy tensions on the Korean Peninsula seem to be thawing. As North Korea proposed a government-level meeting with South Korea yesterday, South Korea accepted it before counter-proposing to Pyongyang to have a ministerial-level meeting next Wednesday. The North-proposed meeting is aimed at normalizing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, but Pyongyang said it can also discuss humanitarian issues, including a meeting to resume reunions of separated families across the border. The North supposedly wants to turn to dialogue after all the fracas over its long-range missile launches, a third nuclear test, a unilateral suspension of the joint industrial park and other provocations.
Pyongyang’s proposal came ahead of the weekend summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. The recalcitrant regime likely made the decision due to Beijing’s mounting pressure. Xi reiterated the importance of dialogue to denuclearize the peninsula and an easing of strained inter-Korean relations when Kim Jong-un’s special envoy visited Beijing to deliver Kim’s personal letter. With a Seoul-Beijing summit also to be held later this month, Pyongyang must have judged it should do something before it’s too late.
The two Koreas must ease the tension and build trust rather than engage in a risky - and expensive - tug of war. As for the industrial complex in Kaesong, both sides must respect the principle of separation of politics and economy because it’s related to the livelihoods of hundreds of South Korean businessmen and tens of thousands of North Korean workers. Pyongyang must ensure it’ll never cut off communication lines and traffic routes or pull out its workers from the park. Safety guarantees are a prerequisite for the resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism as well.
Both sides must resume reunions of the separated families through the Red Cross to console their decades-old pain. As President Park Geun-hye upholds previous inter-Korean agreements, the government has no reason to refuse Pyongyang’s proposal for a joint event commemorating the June 15, 2000 joint statement and the July 4, 1972 joint declaration.
Despite signs of appeasement, progress can’t be made if both sides fail to resolve the nuclear issue. As the conundrum cannot be solved by our efforts alone, we expect Obama and Xi to find a breakthrough in the deadlock by agreeing to cooperate on the issue. At a speech to commemorate the 58th anniversary of Memorial Day, President Park urged Pyongyang to join her trust-building process toward the path of co-prosperity. With Pyongyang’s acceptance of our proposal, a turning point has arrived.