Cooler heads must prevailNorth Korea last Friday handed over 55 caskets carrying the remains of American soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, helping to revive the dwindled reciprocity between Pyongyang and Washington due to inactivity following the June 12 summit in Singapore. The move raises hopes for a breakthrough in the bottleneck amid differences in approach to denuclearization.
The repatriation, however, cannot be overestimated. North Korea and the United States have made efforts to bring home the remains of U.S. soldiers since the end of the war, though the project has been suspended since North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006. Both Seoul and Washington should stay cool-headed so as not to overly respond to the bona fide gesture and jump into a peace treaty with Pyongyang.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has carried out a chain of favorable actions — returning American hostages and dismantling nuclear test and missile engine sites — and doves may reason it is time for Washington to offer reciprocal measures. Nevertheless, it is premature to declare an end to the war and sign a peace treaty to replace the armistice.
A declaration nullifying an armistice could lead to symbolic and grave repercussions. Pyongyang could demand the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers with the war formally ended. Sanctions could be lifted, and Pyongyang and Washington could normalize ties before denuclearization is complete. South Korea would have to live with a nuclear-armed neighbor with little protection.
Seoul and Washington must not agree to a peace treaty unless Pyongyang hands over a clear action plan on denuclearization and an honest list of its nuclear weapons. Foreign ministers of the two Koreas as well as the four concerned countries in the region— the United States, China, Japan and Russia — will meet in Singapore on Aug 4 for the Asean Regional Forum on the issue of security. South Korea and the others must use the momentum to pressure North Korea to take sure steps toward denuclearization.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 30, Page 30