Editorial: Make North-South Korea summit the foundation for steps toward denuclearization

The 38th parallel north cuts across the Korean Peninsula. Near the military demarcation line is Panmunjom, where a new page was added to modern history yesterday. Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, met and held talks, resulting in a joint declaration which confirmed the common goal of the “realization of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”

After issuing the Panmunjom Declaration, the leaders held a joint press conference and called for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. They stressed their commitment to bringing about national reconciliation. People of the same ethnic group were divided into two countries because of the Korean War (1950-1953), which broke out in the context of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The international community should welcome the mere fact that North Korea and South Korea have begun to pursue the same goal.

How will nuclear weapons be disposed of?

But critics have different views of denuclearization, which is the greatest concern. The two leaders did not make clear statements about when denuclearization will be accomplished or how to dispose of the nuclear warheads that North Korea already possesses. Setting this goal without providing the path toward accomplishing it can end up as pie in the sky.

Fine-sounding words are not enough for elation; the two Koreas must now prepare to pursue a realistic approach to denuclearization and reconciliation. The first-ever summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States is expected to take place by early June. This summit must embody the spirit of the Panmunjom Declaration and craft a roadmap for manifesting its vision.

The third North-South summit, which was the first in 10 and a half years, was surely watched not only by Japan and its neighbors but also by the world with a sense of surprise and hope.

Conciliatory atmosphere is created

Mr. Kim walked across the military demarcation line by himself, the first supreme leader of North Korea to set foot in South Korea. Mr. Moon welcomed Mr. Kim with a smile and the two shook hands, then Mr. Moon showed him to the Peace House, which stands on the South Korean side of the military boundary. Media were allowed to give live coverage of the event until the beginning of the meeting. The leaders planted a tree in commemoration of their talks. A conciliatory atmosphere was carefully prepared and carried out.

But how deep the discussion actually went is not known.

As for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party held a plenary session in North Korea on April 20 and decided to dismantle its nuclear test site but made no reference to giving up its nuclear weapons, giving rise to the suspicion that it was meant as an indication that the country plans to keep its nuclear arms. At the start of the summit, Mr. Kim said that he was willing to discuss the things that need to be discussed, and deliver favorable results. We wonder, though, what was actually discussed between the two men as the content of their talks is the most important part of what occurred.

North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests and has announced that it has completed its goal of developing the nation’s nuclear capability. It has been pointed out that it can increase its production of warheads at any given time because of the expertise it has accumulated over the years.

The United States and Japan want there to be a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. In return for denuclearizing his country, Mr. Kim wants to ensure that he will be able to maintain his position and his regime. How serious is he about denuclearization? And how will respond, as well, to the issue of North Korean missiles?

North Korea has become an even tougher negotiator. Until the start of this year, no one had thought that a summit between the North and South would be held. With provocative words and deeds, Mr. Kim had been practicing brinksmanship before he suddenly shifted in tone when the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games were held this past February. He sent his sister and aide Kim Yo-jong to South Korea and made arrangements for the summit through charm diplomacy.

It is too optimistic to expect North Korea to now change politically. Some believe that the effectiveness of economic sanctions have prompted Mr. Kim’s change of heart. The declaration crafted with Mr. Moon states that South Korea and North Korea will seek to declare a formal end to the Korean War this year. But Mr. Kim’s true intention must surely be to conclude a peace treaty with the United States so that it will change its hostile policy toward his nation.

Momentum for nuclear abolition

Mr. Moon must not forget that North Korea has demonstrated sudden changes of attitude in the past. The 2000 joint declaration said that the governments agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently. The countries also agreed on relaxing military tensions and advancing economic exchange, but this agreement collapsed. If easy concessions and compromises are again made, this could create serious repercussions in the future.

The Panmunjom Declaration does not include the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump has promised to support Japan’s effort to help the abductees return to Japan. We hope some progress on this issue will be made during the summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders.

“Realizing a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” means that South Korea cannot hold nuclear weapons, either. And this would naturally affect such issues as the so-called nuclear umbrella and the standing of U.S. forces stationed in South Korea. Regarding these issues, Japan should reflect on its own situation. This idea of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula should serve as a signpost toward achieving a world without nuclear weapons.

At the beginning of the summit, which was open to the media, Mr. Kim said, “We have learned our lesson from previous times and even if we have good agreements, we will disappoint the people and their high expectations of us if we don’t follow through on implementing them.”

The summit between North Korea and South Korea must become the foundation for positive steps forward.

(Originally published on April 28, 2018)