A leadership litmus testA third inter-Korean summit has begun in Pyongyang amid a festive mood. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un heartily welcomed President Moon Jae-in and his wife at an airport in Pyongyang followed by an inspection of an honor guard and a 21-gun salute. The scene of North Korean citizens welcoming Moon along the street while waving flowers was rather emotional. His three-day, two-night stay in North Korea will surely be full of such excitement.
But Moon and his entourage must not forget why he is visiting Pyongyang. North Korea has been dragging its feet on denuclearization. Despite the United States’ persistent demand for tangible actions, including the submission of a list of nuclear weapons and facilities, Pyongyang adheres to its principle that a declaration to end the Korean War is needed before launching a denuclearization process. Moon’s biggest goal is drawing sincere denuclearization measures from North Korea.
Moon brought heads of major corporations and the CEO of a public company handling construction of railways and roads to Pyongyang. As a result, concerns are growing over the possibility of South Korea trying to walk though some loopholes in international sanctions. In particular, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said via Twitter that global sanctions are necessary to achieve denuclearization. That is the same as a warning that Seoul should not ease sanctions on its own.
North Korea must appreciate Moon’s decision to bring those business leaders to Pyongyang despite oppositions at home and abroad. Ahead of the summit, Moon said, “The springtime in Panmunjom has become autumn in Pyongyang,” a euphemism for the need for some fruit to be harvested this time. But if he returns empty-handed after only reaffirming North Korea’s will to denuclearize, he will face much criticism. Many will attack Moon for doing nothing after being deceived by Pyongyang. In that case, his role as a mediator between Pyongyang and Washington will be critically diminished.
If Moon simply reaches an agreement on easing military tension without reaping substantial concessions from Pyongyang, that is a problem, too. Even if both sides decide to establish a peace zone in the tense maritime border in the West Sea or withdraw some guard posts along the DMZ, it will not be considered enough. The public will denounce him for surrendering our security even when the nuclear threat remains intact. The summit in Pyongyang is a great opportunity — and a litmus test. Moon must show determination.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 19, Page 30