The peace process aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis is gaining momentum. On the surface, the latest developments offer optimism, but there are causes for concern as well.
The brightest prospects come from inter-Korean relations, as the two Koreas are quickly following up on the agreements made by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their two meetings.
On Monday, the two sides held a meeting at the truce village of Panmunjeom to discuss inter-Korean sports programs. They agreed on athletes’ joint march at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Asian games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, in August, as well as the formation of unified teams. They also agreed to hold goodwill basketball matches in Pyongyang next month.
Meanwhile, Red Cross officials will meet at Panmunjeom on Friday to discuss the arrangement of reunions of families separated by the Korean War. Seoul officials said there will be more inter-Korean talks on connecting roads and railways between the two sides and on forestry cooperation later this month.
All these reconciliatory programs are follow-up steps to the Panmunjeom Declaration signed by Moon and Kim on April 27 and their second summit on May 26.
The most noteworthy of the flurry of inter-Korean discussions is that the two sides are discussing measures to reduce military tension along the heavily fortified border.
In line with the Panmunjeom Declaration that called on the two sides to “reduce military tension and remove the danger of war,” they have halted cross-border propaganda broadcasts. Holding their first generals’ meeting in 11 years last week, the two sides agreed to restore military communication lines and make the Joint Security Area in Panmunjeom an unarmed zone.
The most notable aspect of the military talks is that they may take substantial steps to reduce tension along the border, including the relocation of long-range artillery. There was no official announcement, but news reports said that pulling back the North’s long-distance artillery farther away from the border area was being discussed by the two sides.
It indeed is a good development because the North’s long-range artillery poses a real threat to the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area. The North has often threatened that it would turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” and the threats were based on its artillery capability.
Relocating the North’s long-distance artillery may require some corresponding actions from the southern side, but any such move would not only reduce fears of surprise strikes and reduce tension but also increase mutual confidence.
With the two Koreas taking reconciliatory steps, the US and North Korea are also moving to take follow-up actions to their leaders’ meeting in Singapore last week. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong-chol are set to start talks this week.
Trump had South Korea and the US call off the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drill set for August. He also said he gave his telephone number to Kim during their meeting in Singapore and they would talk on the phone soon.
As Trump said, it is important for him to have a good relationship with Kim. The problem is that the US president seems obsessed with highlighting only positive aspects of Kim and presenting bright prospects for the denuclearization deal.
That may be part of his efforts to make a political fortune out of his deal with Kim. In fact, Trump said that it was his idea to offer the suspension of the joint military drills with South Korea.
He did not forget, in Singapore and later in Washington too, to mention that US taxpayers would be saving a “tremendous” amount of money. He also said he would like to bring home US forces in South Korea eventually.
His latest tweet succinctly shows what’s on his mind. “The denuclearization deal with North Korea is being praised and celebrated all over Asia. They are so happy!” he wrote.
Asians, not least South Koreans, and even those beyond the continent would be happy if the deal stands and goes in the way Trump said it would go. But it is too early for him to say that his deal made people happy and secure.