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[Editorial] Order of things

Improvement of inter-Korean relations should not precede denuclearization

The two Koreas exchanged Tuesday the lists of their delegates to the high-level talks to be held June 1. The talks, agreed on by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in their surprise meeting last Saturday, will focus on economic cooperation, including cross-border railways and roads.

The two sides are also expected to start soon more dialogue, including on military talks to reduce tension on the border and Red Cross talks on reunions of separated families.

The inter-Korean cooperative mood, which had started at the first Moon-Kim meeting on April 27 but suffered a setback thereafter by the North’s abrupt about-turn, was revived by their secret meeting in the northern part of the truce village of Panmunjeom on Saturday.

In part, their discussions, which came after US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of his own meeting with Kim, helped to revive the historic US-North Korea summit slated for June 12 in Singapore. In that sense, the meeting was beneficial for both Moon and Kim.

Obviously, Kim was desperate to keep the meeting with Trump alive and sought to enlist help from Moon, who had brokered the US-North meeting and just came back from a meeting with the US president in Washington. Kim asked for a meeting with Moon on a day’s notice.

For Moon, it also gave him a good chance to recover his reputation as someone who can help Kim and Trump successfully hold talks, which suffered damage when Trump blindsided him when he called off the talks in citation of the North’s resumed hostility toward Washington.

To be fair, the second Moon-Kim meeting should be commended not only because it helped revive the Trump-Kim talks, but also -- as Moon said -- opened a new era between the two Koreas.

Moon said that the fact that he and Kim could “meet casually as friends do” is significant and that they should have such a meeting whenever necessary. Kim also said it could help the two sides become closer.

Largely, the significance of the Moon-Kim meeting, which was decided and arranged in just a day, was overshadowed by another breaking announcement: Trump’s decision to proceed with the meeting with Kim. But it should have had impact on relations between the two leaders.

You need look no further than the history of meetings between past leaders to see how difficult it was for them to communicate with each other. It took 52 years since the national division before President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il held the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000.

Then it took seven more years for President Roh Moo-hyun held another meeting with Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father, who never kept his promise to make a return visit to South Korea.

It has been yet another 11 years – while there were two consecutive conservative governments in the South – since the second meeting in Pyongyang that Moon and Kim held the third inter-Korean summit at the southern part of Panmunjeom. Kim became the first North Korean leader to set his feet into the southern territory after the 1950-53 Korean War.

Given this, the fact that Moon and Kim, meeting in the border village for the second time in about one month with little formalities, have started what southern officials say is a sort of “shuttle summitry” should bode well for future inter-Korean relations.

Indeed, they set a good precedent. The fact that the two leaders could meet each other at any time without the usual pre-summit hassle or protocol restrictions, will help the two sides take on any crisis or dispute easily and peacefully.

Moon’s confidence in the need to embrace such a summitry format, however, should not lead to excessive optimism about the future behavior of the North Korean regime. One good example is Kim’s abrupt decision to cancel the high-level talks that had been slated for May 16 in breach of the Panmunjeom Declaration he signed with Moon only 19 days ago. Lately, the North also blasted Tuesday the South for an annual joint South Korea-US military exercise and demanded repatriation of a group of North Koreans who defected to the South after working in a restaurant in China two years ago.

One more important thing is that improvement of inter-Korean relations should never interfere with the unalterable goal of achieving the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear capabilities. The pace of inter-Korean reconciliatory programs should be under prudent, tight control.