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[Editorial] Hasty moves

Seoul’s eagerness to push forward inter-Korean dialogue risks playing into Pyongyang’s hands

Seoul’s Unification Ministry has resumed approving requests from civilian organizations to allow them to ship materials to North Korea by endorsing two such applications Friday. The shipment of materials by civilian groups to the communist state was banned in September following the North’s killing of a South Korean fisheries official near the inter-Korean maritime border in the West Sea.

The measure to lift the ban came just three days after cross-border communication lines were restored. In June last year, the North unilaterally severed them and demolished an inter-Korean liaison office in its border town of Kaesong in anger over the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border into the reclusive country from the South.

Announcing the permission to ship materials to the North, Unification Minister Lee In-young also disclosed that Seoul had made a proposal to Pyongyang a day earlier through the restored liaison channel to discuss establishing a virtual conference system for inter-Korean talks. He said the government would try to set up the system for virtual talks and complete preparations for “safe in-person talks” as soon as possible to move forward stalled cross-border dialogue amid the protracted coronavirus pandemic.

Later Friday, another senior official at the Unification Ministry raised the need to delay a South Korea-US joint military drill scheduled for mid-August. The official stressed that now was the “right time” for Seoul and Washington to work together on bringing the North back to the negotiating table.

Seoul’s moves in the wake of the restoration of cross-border communication lines appear to reflect its eagerness to facilitate talks with Pyongyang in the hopes of arranging for yet another summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Some lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea have raised the possibility of Moon and Kim meeting on the occasion of the Beijing Winter Olympics slated for February.

The exchange of personal letters between them multiple times since April, which officials here say led to the agreement to reopen the inter-Korean communication channels, could also serve as a positive factor for the arrangement of their fourth summit.

Ostensibly, the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae remains cautious about the prospect of an additional encounter between Moon and Kim, saying there are many steps that should be taken. But Moon appears eager to meet with Kim again before his five-year term ends in May to carry forward his peace agenda for the Korean Peninsula.

The Moon administration needs to be careful not to play into Pyongyang’s hands by pandering to the recalcitrant regime.

The North’s agreement to reopen the communication lines that it unilaterally severed is not something to be rewarded. Rather, it continues to reject Seoul’s proposal to conduct a joint probe into the killing of the South Korean fisheries official.

Pyongyang seems to be seeking to use Seoul’s eagerness to carry forward cross-border cooperation to get the US to reach a nuclear deal on terms favorable to it.

Despite its commitment to diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, US President Joe Biden’s administration has made it clear that there will be no easing of international sanctions on the impoverished regime in the absence of substantial progress toward the complete denuclearization of the North.

Moon’s aspiration to move ahead with his peace agenda even at the risk of downplaying nuclear threats from the North could fall out of step with Washington in keeping pressure on the isolated state. In that event, the Moon administration might find itself shunned and derided again by Pyongyang’s propaganda machine.

It should be recalled that the conciliatory mood forged between the two Koreas through three rounds of Moon-Kim talks in 2018 evaporated amid stalled nuclear negotiations between the US and the North. At the moment, there is no concrete sign that Pyongyang is ready to hold substantive dialogue with Seoul, let alone take sincere steps toward denuclearization.

It could also prompt a domestic political backlash to push for an inter-Korean summit in time for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which begins just a month ahead of a crucial election here to select Moon’s successor.

The North’s agreement to restore cross-border communication lines is likely to be instrumental at least in delaying or reducing the summertime joint military exercise between the South and the US. It cannot be seen as warranting the weakening of the allies’ combined defense posture.

By Korea Herald (koreaherald@heraldcorp.com)
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