President Moon Jae-in is sending special envoys led by Chung Eui-yong, chief of the presidential National Security Office, to North Korea on Monday afternoon. The five-member delegation has been dispatched to reciprocate recent official visits from the North, and they are expected to focus on the arrangement of a US-North Korea dialogue.
The main purpose of the delegation is to grasp North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s thoughts. The South needs to know whether he intends to dismantle his country’s nuclear program.
If he does, the situation could progress rapidly toward talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
If he doesn’t, the envoys should convey accurately the positions of South Korea and the US, explain why the North should be denuclearized and let Kim know that there will be no dialogue with the US and the South and that the North cannot escape sanctions as long as it has nuclear arms.
Pyongyang is likely to ask Seoul to try to persuade Washington to hold talks with the North after acknowledging it as a nuclear power. Such a request cannot be accepted. The delegation must make it clear that it is a fantasy to expect the South to side with the North in trying to persuade the US.
Kim must know clearly that international sanctions will continue as long as his country refuses dialogue for denuclearization and that its economy will break down soon. The envoys must tell him that the Donald Trump administration is different from the past US governments and that it is adamant about denuclearizing the North.
Trump’s White House has clear positions on US-North Korea dialogue. Trump has stressed the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program. The South Korean government’s position on North Korean nukes should be the same.
To Kim, the South and the US should show an airtight alliance, as Pyongyang seeks to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington and to use the South as a shield or leverage to fend off the US’ offensives and ease sanctions against the North. Cracks must not form in the alliance.
This is why Moon Chung-in, a mentor to President Moon on foreign and North Korean affairs, has been criticized for saying in a recent seminar in Washington that US forces should leave Korea if its president tells them to do so.
The North’s nuclear weapons are not only a matter between Pyongyang and Washington, but a matter for the South’s survival. The Moon administration must not obfuscate the goal of dialogue.
Pyongyang’s argument that it has nukes to defend itself from US attacks and that it does not aim them at the South is nothing more than sophistry intended to cause division in the South and cracks in the alliance.
Though the North said it wanted dialogue with the US, the possibility that Kim intends to talk over its nuclear program is low. There does not seem to be much time left for the South to arrange for the US and the North to come to the table for dialogue. If the Korea-US joint military exercises resume in April and then the North takes some provocative action as it has threatened, prospects for inter-Korean dialogue will likely disappear and the situation on the Korean Peninsula will become worse than before the PyeongChang Olympics. Washington recently ramped up its sanctions against the North, and is reportedly weighing military options.
Notwithstanding the low possibility that Pyongyang takes steps to dismantle its nuclear program right away, the special envoys must try their best to persuade Kim to take steps in that direction, even if they are minimal to begin with.
In any case, the issue of denuking the North must be addressed on the basis of Korea-US cooperation and alliance. Pyongyang said it wanted dialogue because it has judged that its situation has turned unfavorable due to tougher sanctions. If, in this situation, the South is seen being dragged around by the North or playing into its hands, the US alliance and international sanctions could be impaired.
As long as the North holds on to its nuclear arms, the pain it suffers from sanctions will only become greater. The South must drive this point home to the North.