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[Editorial] Illusory approach

NK’s ban from Beijing Olympics cools Seoul’s preoccupation with peace process

President Moon Jae-in and his aides may have been more disappointed than Pyongyang with last week’s decision by the International Olympic Committee to suspend North Korea’s national Olympic committee until the end of next year.

The decision, a punishment for the North’s refusal to participate in the recent Tokyo Summer Olympics over COVID-19 concerns, virtually bars the reclusive communist state from the Beijing Winter Games, which kick off in early February.

The Moon administration had sought a breakthrough in the stalled peace process for the peninsula through high-level engagement with the North on the occasion of the Beijing Olympics. It appeared to be hoping to arrange yet another summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the event.

Seoul had also tried to use the Tokyo Olympics to carry forward Moon’s peace agenda, but those efforts ran aground when Pyongyang skipped the games out of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

In response to the IOC’s decision, an official at the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae said South Korea would continue to seek ways to promote sports exchanges with the North and peace on the peninsula.

The official didn’t comment further on what she described as a “measure taken by the IOC regarding a member country.” In the eyes of many people, however, Seoul should have at least expressed regret over Pyongyang’s failure to align itself with the global consensus -- the North was the only IOC member state to be absent from the Tokyo Olympics.

With Moon’s five-year tenure set to end in May, his administration seems increasingly impatient to restore the reconciliatory mood forged between the two Koreas in 2018 through Moon’s three summits with Kim.

Such impatience seems to have led Seoul to downplay the consequences of the North’s reactivation of a key nuclear complex capable of producing plutonium, a fissile material used to make nuclear bombs. In its annual report last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had detected new indications of activity at the Yongbyon complex, which was suspended in late 2018.

At a parliamentary session last week, Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun said its reactivation did not violate the inter-Korean agreements. Declarations issued after the meetings between Moon and Kim in 2018 made it clear that the two Koreas would strive to achieve a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization. The reactivation of the Yongbyon complex runs counter to the spirit of the declarations and harms the credibility of Moon’s repeated assurances that the North Korean leader is determined to work toward denuclearization.

Now, Moon needs to depart from his preoccupation with the chance to hold a fourth meeting with Kim in the hopes of reviving inter-Korean reconciliation before he leaves office.

Pyongyang might judge that it would serve its interests better to hold the next inter-Korean summit with Moon’s successor.

Some experts worry that the Moon government might try to persuade Kim to meet with Moon again by suggesting a massive package of economic incentives that go against the US-led international sanctions imposed on the North to curb its nuclear and ballistic missile development.

This endeavor could risk further exacerbating inter-Korean relations if the next government in Seoul failed to honor promises to pursue cross-border projects lucrative for Pyongyang. That’s exactly what happened after former President Lee Myung-bak ignored his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun’s agreement with then-North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il at their 2007 summit, held just months before the expiry of Roh’s term in office.

Moon and those to lead South Korea after him should not be caught up in the illusion that they can lay a firm foundation for lasting peace and reunification with the North within their limited tenure. No summit with a lifetime dictator of the oppressive regime can be a master key to the fundamental resolution of inter-Korean issues.

During the remainder of his tenure, Moon is urged to decouple himself from what is criticized as an illusory approach to the North and instead focus on alleviating the difficulties facing people in the South, partly as a result of his misplaced domestic policies.

By Korea Herald (koreaherald@heraldcorp.com)
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