Editorial: North Korea and South Korea agree to a summit

Amid the conciliatory mood created between North Korea and South Korea through the Pyeongchang Olympics, the two nations have agreed to hold a third North-South summit at a South Korean venue in Panmunjom at the end of April. They also reached an agreement to establish a hot-line between their leaders, and North Korea has said that it will freeze its ballistic missile launch tests and nuclear tests.

For the time being, we are able to breathe a sigh of relief over the fact that the threat posed by North Korea has been eased. If a military conflict should break out on the Korean Peninsula, Japan would undoubtedly become entangled in this crisis. And, as a consequence, the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals would become even more difficult to resolve.

Panmunjom, which is located in the demilitarized zone, is a symbol of the Cold War, a term that is now a relic amid current international conditions, and also symbolizes the divided nation. Holding the summit in this location has great significance.

This sudden advance between the two nations is an indication of the capability of the South Korean government led by President Moon Jae-in, who has repeatedly stressed that there will not be a war again on the Korean Peninsula, and his actions have been met with high approval by the public. This agreement seems to have given South Korea the confidence to feel that the stage is set to embark on dialogue between the United States and North Korea. We need to accept the fact that South Korea is now taking the lead in efforts to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, also released a statement that welcomed the Korean agreement and stressed the need to maintain the momentum of dialogue in order to find a path forward for a peaceful resolution. It is uncertain if this agreement indicates that North Korea will now make full concessions, but it appears to be the case that the country’s economic distress, as a consequence of U.N. sanctions, is also a factor in their willingness to seek a solution.

But, as Mr. Guterres pointed out, the path toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula must now be sought. At this point, the agreement makes no mention of steps to realize denuclearization. According to the press release put out by South Korea, North Korea has made it clear that it has no reason to possess nuclear weapons if it feels no military threat and the continuance of the current political regime is guaranteed. In addition, North Korea has said that it is prepared to engage in open and frank dialogue with the United States on the subjects of denuclearization and the normalization of the bilateral relationship, and that it will not pursue any provocative acts, including further nuclear tests, as long as this dialogue continues.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that North Korea has ceased its justifications for possessing nuclear arms. It appears that North Korea has not put a halt to its nuclear development activities, such as extracting plutonium from spent nuclear fuel in its domestic nuclear reactor. If North Korea truly wants to break out of its international isolation and have the economic sanctions relaxed, it must refrain from such acts and demonstrate its sincerity.

It is natural for the Japanese government to feel deeply wary over the fact that past talks between North Korean and international community did not produce a path toward denuclearization.

In 1994, after an agreement was concluded between the United States and North Korea to provide North Korea with a light-water reactor and heavy oil in return for freezing its nuclear development program, North Korea’s uranium enrichment program came to light. And again, regarding the joint statement at the six-party talks in 2005, which clearly emphasized the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea nevertheless pushed ahead with its nuclear testing after the release of that statement.

But if Japan shows only distrust toward North Korea and clings to a policy of applying pressure, there is the risk that Japan will be unable to keep pace with the talks between the United States and North Korea. If North Korea and South Korea swiftly move forward to improve their relations without clarifying the path toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, this would surely have an impact on the security framework involving the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

In any case, we mustn’t allow North Korea to buy time. In the upcoming summit between North Korea and South Korea, it is important that a path forward for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, and terminating North Korea’s nuclear development program, be identified. This is also a time that will test the diplomatic prowess of the Abe administration in its dealings with North Korea, South Korea, and the United States.

(Originally published on March 8, 2018)