South Korean President Moon Jae-in reportedly mentioned the necessity of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a meeting with the North Korean delegation led by Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea, on Sunday. The response of the North Korean delegation has not been revealed, but Kim is understood to have said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “has the same willingness” when President Moon pointed out that North Korea-U.S. dialogue must be held at an early date even for an improved inter-Korean relationship. During a meeting with South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong on Monday, Kim also repeatedly expressed the North’s willingness for talks with the United States, saying, “The door is open for dialogue.” Washington has taken a wait-and-see approach, saying that it “will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization.” With North Korea taking an unusual positive attitude towards dialogue, it seems the world is finally taking the first step to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
It is reported that President Moon explained his two-stage vision for denuclearization, involving a freeze and then a dismantlement of nuclear weapons, in a one-hour meeting with Kim. Moon had earlier announced his denuclearization roadmap in which rewards are to be provided in a step-by-step manner with a nuclear freeze as an entrance and a dismantlement as an exit. Yet, North Korea is highly likely to demand that economic sanctions be lifted and South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises be halted even at an entrance stage. However, a set of international sanctions on North Korea is practically the only way to steer Pyongyang into the final end goal: denuclearization. Thus, North Korea’s request that sanctions be lifted at an early stage of dialogue, if made, cannot and must not be accepted by the international community.
“There is a need for the United States to lower the threshold for talks with North Korea and North Korea should show it is willing to denuclearize. It’s important the United States and North Korea sit down together quickly,” President Moon also said during a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong on Monday. The resumption of the North Korea-U.S. dialogue itself is certainly important, but what is more crucial is establishing a solid foundation for the success of the dialogue. Even after agreeing to nuclear dismantlement through joint statements made on Sept. 19, 2005, and Feb. 13, 2007, Pyongyang repeatedly reneged on denuclearization roadmaps at a verification stage. On Feb. 29, 2012, after Kim Jong Un came into power, the regime pledged again to halt its nuclear program in a high-level meeting with the United States, only to break a promise by testing a long-range rocket that year. What enabled Pyongyang to constantly dishonor agreements with the related parties back then was a porous network of international sanctions imposed on the regime.
Yet, things are different now. Unlike a few weeks ago when it abruptly cancelled a scheduled meeting between Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, probably because of Pence’s hardline stance, North Korea has made it clear this time that it has willingness to have talks with the United States even though denuclearization was mentioned. Such a change of Pyongyang’s attitude shows that the regime now realizes that it has no choice but to engage in dialogue, and this is apparently the result of the heaviest-ever sanctions on North Korea. Tensions are expected to remain high during a period of “truce” until the end of the Paralympics on March 25 as South Korea is likely to communicate with the North through closed channels and possibly send a special envoy to Pyongyang. In order to save the spark of dialogue going forward, the winds of international sanctions must continue to blow.
The North Korean delegation led by Kim Yong Chol also agreed to “work together for sustainable relations between the two Koreas and balanced cooperation with the international society,” in a meeting with South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong Monday.