On the surface, the visit of the South Korean government delegation to North Korea appears to have secured a big success. Statements from both sides suggest that the agreements and discussions they made will help the North improve its relations with both the South and the US and have a positive impact on settling the nuclear crisis.
The two sides’ agreement to hold the third inter-Korean summit in late April represents significant progress in the inter-Korean thaw that started with the visits of two North Korean delegations to the recent PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The planned summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be distinguished from the previous two top-level meetings in many respects. Most of all, the meeting will take place in the southern part of the truce village of Panmunjeom on the inter-Korean border.
That would mark the first time that a North Korean leader has ever entered southern territory. The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who hosted the late South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung in Pyongyang in 2000 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2007, said he would make a return visit, but did not fulfill the promise.
Another big hopeful sign is that, according to the announcement by Chung Eui-yong, who led a 10-member delegation for a two-day visit to Pyongyang, the North indicated willingness to talk about denuclearization with the US.
Moreover, the North said that it “does not have any reason to have nuclear weapons” if there is no hostility or security threat against it. Chung said that the North also made it clear that it would not use its nuclear arsenal or other weapons against the South.
Indeed, all these agreements and commitments are more than expected. So can the South and the rest of the world revel in optimism that the North will come to the negotiation table in a sincere manner and abandon its nuclear and missile programs eventually? Our experience and the reality give us a definite no.
What should be guarded against is that the possibility of the North using closer ties with the South and talks with the US to avoid possible US military action and shake itself out of the international sanctions that have been strangling its already impoverished economy.
In fact, a close look at the North’s positions as explained by Chung should add to the skepticism. For instance, the North’s willingness to do away with nuclear weapons has a condition attached -- there should be no hostility or threat toward it. In other words, the North is sticking to its decades-long demand that the South and the US stop joint military exercises, disband their combined command and pull American troops out of the South.
The North’s promise to “suspend all nuclear and missile tests during negotiations” could also mean that if the negotiation does not go well, it could resume them any time.
The North’s declaration not to use its nuclear arsenal and conventional weapons against the South also should not be seen merely as a goodwill gesture. To paraphrase it, the North is telling the South -- and the world as well -- that it should be recognized as a nuclear state and that the South need not concern itself with denuclearization.
It is therefore yet to be seen whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is sincere about denuclearization talks or he is merely trying to buy the time and keep his country from a possible US military strike and the harsh international sanctions.
Our experiences advise us not to forget that for the North, making agreements and promises is one thing and implementing them is another. Just look at where the North’s nuclear and missile capability is after the numerous meetings and negotiations, including the two inter-Korean summits. What we need from the North is deeds, not words.