In the driver’s seat

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In the driver’s seat

In Wednesday’s telephone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald Trump expressed a willingness to talk with North Korea at an appropriate time if Pyongyang wants to. His remarks are very timely and meaningful as the conversation — which took place shortly after the inter-Korean meeting at Panmunjom the previous day — demonstrates both allies’ determination to tackle the North Korean nuclear problem jointly. The phone chat also dispelled some concerns about Pyongyang trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington through its peace offensive.

But more important is the message Trump delivered. Backpedaling on his hard-line position on dialogue with North Korea — he once described that as a waste of time — Trump told Moon that the United States will not take solo military action against North Korea while inter-Korean talks are going on. His remark that the door to dialogue is open also hints at the possibility of improved relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Nevertheless, the road to dialogue will be bumpy primarily due to the huge gap between the two countries on denuclearizing North Korea. While Washington bases its offer of dialogue on Pyongyang’s willingness to discuss its suspension of nuclear tests and abandonment of nuclear weapons, Pyongyang wants to enter nuclear arms reduction talks after being recognized as a nuclear power.

Such a sharp discrepancy calls for sophisticated arbitration. The time has come for Moon — supposedly in the driver’s seat now — to demonstrate his ability to drive Washington and Pyongyang toward dialogue.

But we must pay heed to why North Korea has turned to dialogue. After international sanctions began to take effect with China’s participation, albeit not full, North Koreans are nearly suffocated, as evidenced by the North Korean ambassador to Beijing’s strong protest against China joining the sanctions. Pyongyang’s peaceful overtures to Seoul are a means of surviving the international community’s economic strangulation.

In the phone conversation, Moon and Trump underscored the importance of keeping maximum pressure on North Korea. That is a confirmation of a strong determination to bring the recalcitrant state to the negotiating table. Despite a practical need to ease some of the sanctions to help encourage the North to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, it should be minimized. The two-decade-old nuclear conundrum can hardly be solved overnight.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 12, Page 30
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