No more sitting on sidelines

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No more sitting on sidelines

North Korea and the United States have officially announced the results of their third high-level meeting in Beijing last week. The outcome is better than expected and may break the three-year-old deadlock on the resumption of the six-party talks. We welcome the agreement that was struck by the two parties, as it could help remove many of the uncertainties surrounding the Korean Peninsula, particularly after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

The heart of the U.S.-North agreement is an exchange of aid for steps toward denuclearization. Pyongyang agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment programs and accepted a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in return for 240,000 metric tons of nutritional aid in a de facto political deal “disguised” as humanitarian assistance.

The U.S. made it clear that it does not retain hostility against the North but has an intention to improve bilateral relations based on mutual respect. Both sides also reconfirmed their will to implement the Sept. 19, 2005 joint statement - in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear programs - to fundamentally address the North’s nuclear ambition, not to mention exchanges of civilians in culture, education and sports.

Washington might have felt a strategic need to stabilize the peninsula by cajoling Pyongyang into peace in an election season, while North Korea had a need to secure food aid and demonstrate that the new Kim Jong-un regime is functioning normally, in addition to showing off its status as Washington’s equal in dialogue.

But many obstacles remain. In particular, there are noticeable differences in the two announcements. While Pyongyang said that lifting sanctions and securing light-water nuclear reactors will be the first things it will discuss when the six-party talks resume, Washington’s announcement does not mention it. Also, Pyongyang attached strings to the agreement, saying that it would be carried out only when talks are “fruitful.” The North also highlighted the concept of a “provisional suspension,” which heralds a murky path ahead.

The problem is our government’s equivocal position, as it cannot remain a bystander on the issue. We cannot sit on the sidelines solely based on the U.S. assurance that there will be no fundamental improvement in its relations with Pyongyang unless Seoul improves its relationship with the North. Our government should take a forward-thinking approach in tandem with the unfolding U.S.-North rapprochement.
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