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Inter-Korean summit and US role

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By Shim Jae-yun

Various indicators are appearing pointing to a possible inter-Korean summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. For starters, both Koreas have expressed a positive attitude about such a meeting, and China appears to expect a "peace mood" to prevail ahead of its hosting of the Beijing Winter Olympics next February. In addition, U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed Washington's stance of supporting Moon's peace process on the Korean Peninsula in a Sept. 21 speech at the United Nations.

Cross-border communications lines were reopened Monday, following an instruction from the "omnipotent" supreme leader Kim. His influential sister Kim Yo-jong said Sept. 25 that the North was ready to conditionally discuss an inter-Korean summit. It seems fair to say that she closely conferred on the matter with her brother. Former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, a prominent North Korea expert, even forecast the summit could take place soon, possibly within this year, or at least around the time of the Olympics.

He said the two Koreas have allegedly had behind-the-scenes contacts to discuss the issue. "National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won and Kim Yo-jong may have contacted one another through a hotline," Jeong said during an interview with a JTBC program last Tuesday. Current Unification Minister Lee In-young expressed the hope that "South and North Korea could attend the Beijing Olympics together hand-in-hand." During a press interview in Germany, Monday, he said there was a possibility that high-level inter-Korean talks would take place soon to discuss various inter-Korean issues including a possible summit.

Desperate to tackle pressing difficulties, North Korea has seemed eager to resume inter-Korean dialogue. Pyongyang has been suffering from a continuing economic crunch since it closed its border areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with ongoing severe food shortages.

South Korea's recent military buildup campaign appears to have also prompted the North to come forward for talks. Following a summit between Moon and Biden, May 20, the two countries agreed to extend the range of missiles developed by the South to over 800 kilometers. Adding to the North's anxiety, Seoul successfully test-fired its own submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), Sept. 15. Elated by this, Moon instructed his staffers to proactively publicize the event as a brilliant achievement in the country's bid toward a self-reliant defense capability.

Against this backdrop, Pyongyang seems to have become keen to improve its relations with Seoul as a means of containing their respective military buildup drives. To establish detente, the relevant parties may refrain from military provocations. The resumption of exchanges with the South will enable the North to receive humanitarian assistance including much-needed coronavirus vaccines. The North could also expect to mend ties with the U.S. which have remained soured since the collapse of a summit between Kim and then U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi in 2019.

Despite such peace initiatives, Pyongyang has aroused skepticism over its "dual" approach by test-firing various missiles four times since Sept. 13, including a recent "hypersonic" missile launch last Wednesday. North Korea has taken flak for such "duality."

Yet, such an approach has long been the North's fallback tactic in coping with inter-Korean issues. The United Front Department of the North Korean Workers' Party has been dealing with exchanges with the South, while its armed forces have been in charge of military affairs. Given this, former President Kim Dae-jung cited the need to deal with certain matters separately, saying, "When the North sends negative signs, there are always positive ones."

The Kim Dae-jung administration sustained the principle of exchange and cooperation by separating economic and security issues. Instead of a simultaneous tit-for-tat, it relentlessly implemented an inclusive "engagement" approach toward Pyongyang, despite the North's military provocations including a submarine infiltration in June 1998, and the West Sea battle in June 1999.

Such efforts eventually bore fruit, resulting in the historic June 15 South-North Joint Declaration in 2000, and Oct. 4 Declaration in 2007 under then President Roh Moo-hyun. Moon had three summits with Kim in 2018. His historic speech in front of 150,000 Pyongyang citizens, where he stressed the need for the peoples of both Koreas to march together with a grandiose picture of a unified "fatherland," was enthralling.

It is high time for all the relevant parties to combine their efforts toward a single purpose ― peace on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S., in particular, can play a crucial role toward that end. As already stated, the U.S. needs to cherish the spirit of the Singapore Agreement, a move toward peace and reconciliation. The North is desperate to earn equal status to other nations.

Once it feels regime safety, it will come forward to the international community as a responsible and "normal" member, instead of expanding its nuclear capabilities. For this, the easing of international "retaliations" is necessary and the U.S. role is all the more crucial. This will in turn lead to regional peace and the North's lessened dependence on China, which will be in the interests of the U.S.

Shim Jae-yun


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