Clear answers neededChung Eui-yong, chief of the presidential National Security Office, and Suh Hoon, head of the National Intelligence Service, will visit Pyongyang this week as special envoys of President Moon Jae-in. The last time Seoul sent a special envoy to Pyongyang was in 2007. The 34-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be hosting the first state official from outside since succeeding to power in late 2011.
The heads of national security policy and the spy agency will be carrying the landmark mission. Chung and Suh are close confidantes of the president and serve as a key channel to Washington and Pyongyang. They are most capable of relaying the president’s thoughts to both Pyongyang and Washington.
Yet their visit is being watched with concern. They are heading to Pyongyang while the so-called Olympics truce between the two Koreas has become shaky due to renewed belligerence between Pyongyang and Washington. North Korea reiterated that it does not have any intention to discuss denuclearization with the United States. The U.S. maintains that it cannot enter talks if they do not include denuclearization.
The allies are ready to launch joint military drills in April although Pyongyang has threatened that it will not tolerate the exercise. Given its hostile rhetoric, Pyongyang may resume nuclear or missile provocations if the drills take place. The government has decided to send a special delegation in order to keep alive the conciliatory mood before tensions renew at the launch of the April drills.
The role of the envoys is pivotal. They must be able to return home with a clear position from Pyongyang that could persuade Washington. They must at least be able to confirm the North Korean leadership’s will to discuss denuclearization and offer a moratorium on nuclear and missile development or provocation.
Washington could ease up if Pyongyang offers to return three American citizens detained in North Korea. The two Koreas can move onto discussing an inter-Korean summit once the mood is ripe for Washington and Pyongyang to hold a dialogue.
Special envoys have worked to provide a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations and tensions in the peninsula since the 1970s.
Because a single dictator has the say in state and foreign affairs in Pyongyang, Seoul has long sent presidential envoys to cut a deal to solve inter-Korean conundrums and arrange inter-Korean summits. The opposition party therefore should not find fault with the mission.
The ball is now in Pyongyang’s court. Moon has responded to Kim’s invitation to Pyongyang that he was willing if conditions are met. He told North Korean delegates that an inter-Korea summit or further progress can be justified only when Pyongyang demonstrates its will towards denuclearization.
Kim should therefore provide clear answers to the South Korean envoys. Otherwise, all of the focus on him sending his sister to Seoul and the trouble over the charm offensive during the Olympics would turn out to be nothing.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 5, Page 34