Tread carefully

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Tread carefully

The Korean Peninsula is rapidly headed down an uncharted path as summits between Seoul and Pyongyang and between Washington and Pyongyang are scheduled for April and May. South Korea is not only directly involved, but a mediator between the United States and North Korea. That calls for a very prudent approach on our part. Given the time — usually six months — needed to prepare for a summit, the clock is ticking.

President Moon Jae-in made the right move by ordering the prompt establishment of a preparatory committee led by his chief of staff Im Jong-seok and sending National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong to Russia and China and National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon to Japan. U.S. security officials have begun to confirm what they were told by Chung and Suh at the White House last week. On the surface, Seoul and Washington’s preparations for their summits are in high gear.

But we can hardly be optimistic about a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday that Trump will not meet with Kim unless he sees some “concrete” action by Pyongyang — in sharp contrast with Trump’s earlier remarks that he would. North Korea’s state mouthpiece, the Rodong Sinmun, is also keeping mum on Kim’s summit with Trump while denouncing ever-tougher U.S. sanctions on the rogue state. Under such a hostile environment, a compromise can hardly be reached.

A bigger stumbling block will emerge when North Korea makes hard-to-accept demands in the preliminary negotiation process. Kim Jong-un expressed a willingness to denuclearize, but with strings attached. “We have no reason to possess nuclear weapons if a military threat is removed and our regime security is ensured,” he said.

But the devil is in the details. Once Washington and Pyongyang kick off concrete negotiations on denuclearization, Pyongyang will likely demand that our alliance with the United States be dismantled and U.S. Forces withdraw from South Korea. In that case, a peace negotiation cannot move forward. Given the countless land mines in the process, many experts expect the probability of a summit between Trump and Kim to be less than 50 percent.

Despite the stunning developments, the Moon Jae-in administration must be careful. Moon underscored a need to approach the South-North summit as carefully as handling glass. He’s got a point. It is too early for the government to ease economic sanctions on the North. Seoul must not repeat its past mistakes.

*JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 12, Page 34
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