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[Editorial] Inventory still unknown

Expectaton for front-loading gone; concern over South offering delay of nuclear list

The fourth meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on Sunday kick-started the process toward a new US-North Korea summit, but it is unknown if they discussed whether the North would declare its nuclear inventory.

After the trip, Pompeo met with President Moon Jae-in and said the US and North Korea agreed to hold their second summit as early as possible.

The two sides will hold working-level talks to set the details of the planned meeting.

Pompeo also said he and Kim discussed steps North Korea will take to denuclearize and corresponding steps the US will take. The US State Department said that during his meeting with Pompeo, Kim invited an inspection team to verify that the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri had been dismantled irreversibly.

Little else was disclosed about Pompeo’s conversation with Kim. It is uncertain if the latest talks were successful. Nothing is new about a new summit, except for the phrase “as early as possible.”

They likely discussed steps that Pyongyang vowed to take and that had been demanded from the US when Kim met with Moon on Sept. 19 in Pyongyang. Kim promised to shut down a missile engine test site and demanded the US take a corresponding measure as a precondition for closing the nuclear facility in Yongbyon. The measure is expected to be the declaration of the end of the Korean War. Pyongyang may have also made other proposals, asking for sanctions relief instead.

Kim has expressed his commitment, directly and indirectly, to dismantle the nuclear arsenal of his country. But the North has dragged its feet when it comes to denuclearizing itself.

If he is sincere, there is no reason to delay handing over the list for the nuclear inventory. Provision of the list is the first step toward the actualization of his commitment to denuclearize.

With negotiations going on between the US and North Korea, however, the moment of truth will come one time or another. In the process of contacts between the two sides, it will be revealed if the North is moving in the way of denuclearizing itself sincerely or pursuing the status of a nuclear-armed state. The truth of Kim’s commitment that Moon said he confirmed will come out.

Worrisome is that things with the North seem to be going backward. After Chung Eui-yong, chief of National Security Office, took a trip to Pyongyang in January as Moon’s special envoy, there were expectations North Korea may “front-load” denuclearization, that is, Kim may seek a “big deal” with Trump, such as handing over some of North Korea’s nuclear warheads.

Now, such expectations have vanished. Rather South and North Korea seem to move in sync, both countries proposing the delay of the list and trade-off of the end-of-war declaration with the closure of the Yongbyon facility. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said in an interview with the Washington Post on Wednesday it is preferable to have the dismantlement of the Yongbyon facility at this phase rather than a North Korean nuclear inventory.

The end-of-war declaration will eliminate the legal basis of the United Nations Command, change the nature of the US troops stationed in the South and undermine the US-Korea alliance. The North has argued for the dissolution of the command.

The UNC has control over the Demilitarized Zone. In August, it blocked the South from sending a train through the zone to the North to test the rails. Once the command is disbanded, such an incident may not happen. But it would be very difficult to create such a command for South Korea again if needed.

Nevertheless, Kang said it is a political declaration and not a legally binding treaty. Moon said the declaration is reversible at any time.

These are irresponsible remarks which can undermine efforts to denuclearize the North and that imperil the security of the South.

If the end of war is declared in exchange for the shutdown of the Yongbyon facility, and if sanctions relief is granted restrictively with regard to inter-Korean ties alone, even if the North has not taken the first meaningful step to denuclearize, Pyongyang will feel no more need to negotiate. Then it will become more difficult to denuclearize the country.

A peace with a nuclear-armed North Korea is just a mirage.