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[Editorial] Olympic momentum

Ultimate goal of inter-Korean talks should be denuclearization

It certainly is a good sign that the two Koreas agreed on North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and other rapprochement programs. But the sudden eruption of a reconciliatory mood should not interfere with the ultimate, unalterable goal of denuclearizing the North.

As things stand, the first inter-Korean government-level talks in over two years yielded more-than-expected results. Besides athletes and team officials, the North will send what is expected to be the largest delegation of its kind to the PyeongChang Olympics.

The North Korean visitors will include a high-level government delegation, cheering and performing arts squads, a taekwondo demonstration team and journalists. The number of North Korean visitors could reach into the several hundreds.

The two sides also said they would consider a joint march of their athletes during the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games to open in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, Feb. 9.

All these are a great boon for the Olympic Games, which -- on top of some negative factors like the ban on Russia over a doping scandal -- had faced security concerns over the nuclear tension between the North and the US.

These and other positive impacts of the North’s participation on the success of the Olympics should not be underestimated. But there is a more important point in the sudden thaw in inter-Korean relations: It indeed helped to defuse --- for now -- the acute security crisis that had stoked fears of war only a short while ago.

The administration of President Moon Jae-in, which inherited reconciliatory policy of his liberal predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, set the stage for the turn of events by agreeing with the US to delay the annual joint military exercises until after the PyeongChang Olympic and the Paralympic Games.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un responded positively, using his New Year’s address to express his intention to send North Korean delegates to PyeongChang and start government-level talks to discuss Olympic issues and ways to improve inter-Korean relations.

This definitely is a sea change from a short while ago when the North and US exchanged threats of war over the North’s sixth nuclear test and a series of missile tests.

However, the reality, and our past experiences, tell us that we should not be elated and overly optimistic by the sudden peace overtures from the North.

Most of all, in the same New Year’s address in which he extended a rare olive branch toward South Korea, Kim made it clear that his regime would never give up its nuclear and missile ambitions.

That the North Korean chief delegate to Tuesday’s high-level talks made negative reactions when southern delegates touched on the denuclearization issue also tells us what is on the North’s mind.

What cannot be ruled out is the possibility that the North is merely using the thaw in inter-Korean relations to buy time to further improve its nuclear and missile capabilities and discourage the US from taking new hard-line actions, including possible military action or harsher economic and diplomatic pressure like cutoff of oil supplies and naval interdiction or embargo.

Its decision to send such a large delegation to PyeongChang and the agreement to hold military talks aimed to discuss reduction of tensions along the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas and other high-level government talks could be part of efforts to maximize the effect of its peace overture.

There is no reason not to take advantage of the change in the North’s position. But the South Korean government and the international community should not lower their guard as long as denuclearization is concerned.

What’s important is to guard against rewarding the North with excessive support for the North’s participation in the Olympic Games and other humanitarian aid or economic assistance that could come in conflict with the UN-led international sanctions on the North’s nuclear and missile provocations.

As US President Donald Trump said, the North may be making an ardent call for reconciliation with the South because of the growing pain from the harshest-ever international sanctions. The pressure should be solidly in place, if there is not a palpable sign of change in the North’s position on the denuclearization issue.