Editorial: U.S. president agrees to talk with North Korean leader

The rapid developments have been stunning. U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed his intention to meet with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, by the end of May. If this summit does take place, it would be the first meeting in history between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.

Until quite recently, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim had been lobbing threats at one another, even hinting at the potential use of nuclear weapons. Mr. Trump denigrated Mr. Kim with the term “Rocket Man” while the North Korean leader retorted by calling the president a “dotard.” It is hard to be optimistic that the meeting will actually take place. Still, we welcome this change of attitude to ease tensions and the willingness to pursue dialogue instead of force. And we could say that the situation on the Korean Peninsula has now come to a turning point.

According to South Korean officials, Mr. Kim proposed holding talks with the U.S. president as soon as possible, and “pledged that North Korea will refrain from both nuclear and missile tests in the future.” Still, it is hard to quickly accept these words at face value. Previously, Mr. Kim was told that the United States was open to dialogue, but his stance did not soften. On the contrary, he responded by undertaking provocative actions, such as repeated missile tests.

North Korea’s change of heart may be the result of international sanctions, which have successfully put that nation in a truly needy state and left it with no alternative but to negotiate. The hidden agenda for Mr. Kim must also be that he wants to avoid any military action by the United States. For Mr. Trump, there are midterm elections approaching this fall, and his party is expected to fight an uphill battle. Perhaps he is hoping to make use of this opportunity to deliver some results before the election takes place.

North Korea has reportedly expressed more understanding over the fact that joint military exercises involving the United States and South Korea will continue. Considering its hardline position in the past, this is a very large concession from North Korea.

However, we must be careful to consider Mr. Kim’s true intentions. Only after we learn what he really wants can dialogue on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula be pursued. It is also vital that we urge North Korea to abide by its words.

North Korea has a history of repeatedly breaking agreements involving the denuclearization issue: The U.S.-North Korea Framework Agreement in 1994; the joint statement released in 2005 during the six-party talks; and the 2012 agreement between the U.S. and North Korea to halt its nuclear development. There is still the widespread view among the international community that North Korea used these negotiations to buy time to continue its nuclear development efforts.

That is why the high-level envoy from South Korea, who conveyed the message from Mr. Kim to President Trump, stated strongly that they “will not repeat the mistakes of the past.” They also stressed that South Korea, together with the United States and Japan, “will continue the pressure until North Korea matches its words with concrete actions” to realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

However, engaging in dialogue and forging an agreement between the United States and North Korea is not enough to achieve complete denuclearization. There are many hurdles to cross such as creating an international framework to verify the dismantling of nuclear weapons and ensuring its effectiveness.

North Korea is believed to be close to accomplishing its aim of nuclear capability, and they have nearly gained the ability to attack the U.S. mainland. Mr. Kim is sure to play his nuclear card in a bid to win concessions from the United States. At the meeting with South Korean envoys, he made it clear that he would agree to abandon nuclear arms on the condition that the United States ends its military threats and guarantees the continuance of the current North Korean regime.

Russia and China have also responded favorably to this new movement. However, the larger goal is creating a nuclear-free zone in Northeast Asia after North Korea has given up its nuclear program and the Korean Peninsula is successfully denuclearized. Dialogue is just the first step toward that goal. The United States, which is continuing to enhance its nuclear capability, and allies like Japan and South Korea that are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, should bear in mind that they are required to make efforts to eliminate the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to visit the United States to meet President Trump in April. As the leader of the A-bombed nation, Mr. Abe should not only request U.S. cooperation for the early resolution of the issue of the Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, but he should also propose security measures that do not rely on nuclear weapons.

(Originally published on March 10, 2018)