By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 18 (Yonhap) -- If history is any guide, distrust among nations is a major obstacle for cooperation, either bilateral or multilateral, with their ill-defined policy intentions stoking fears, escalating security competition and raising the potential for unintended clashes.
That trust factor has been coming into play as Seoul is pushing to keep Pyongyang on a denuclearization track with the prospects of regime sustainability, economic prosperity and diplomatic recognition despite lingering skepticism in Washington.
This week's third summit between President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang is likely to be a culmination of Seoul's efforts to build confidence with the reclusive state still in doubt about its future without nuclear arms.
"North Korea has been developing its nuclear arsenal as it has felt inferior in terms of conventional weapons capabilities in the face of a more affluent South Korea aligned with its ally, the United States," Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University, told Yonhap News Agency.
"If the two Koreas build sufficient military confidence that will lead to a reduction of tensions, the North would have a lesser reason for possessing nuclear arms," he added.
Since Moon and Kim adopted their first summit agreement in April to enhance cross-border cooperation and exchanges, lower tensions and pursue the "complete denuclearization" of the peninsula, the two Koreas have come a long way in terms of confidence-building.
Shortly after the summit at the truce village of Panmunjom, Seoul and Pyongyang removed propaganda loudspeakers along the Military Demarcation Line, which served as a major tool for psychological warfare.
In June, they held their first general-grade military talks in more than a decade to display their will to enforce the military part of the April summit agreement entailing a decision to halt "all hostile acts" against each other on land, sea and air.
There, they agreed to fully restore their military communication lines that had been left dysfunctional amid cross-border enmity. The western part of the communication line was normalized in July, while the eastern part got back up and running last month.
In July, the two sides held another general-grade talks where they reached a "broad understanding" on disarming the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), jointly excavating war remains in the buffer zone and withdrawing border guard posts on a trial basis.
Moreover, Seoul and Pyongyang are now discussing the issue of turning the Northern Limit Line (NLL), a de facto sea border, into a "maritime peace zone" in line with the April summit declaration, though they appear to remain apart over the nagging challenge.
Pyongyang has long disputed the sea line on the grounds that it was drawn unilaterally by the then-U.S.-led U.N. Command after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. It wants the NLL to be redrawn further south.
Despite such differences, Seoul officials believe that the two Koreas are on course to restore confidence that has long been marred by a lack of communication and misunderstandings about mutual intentions.
"South and North Korea are making attempts virtually at an entry level of an operational arms control beyond the level of confidence-building between their military authorities," Chung Eui-yong, Seoul's top presidential security adviser, said during a security forum in Seoul last week.
Experts have said that the arms control process might proceed largely in three steps -- either in a linear progression or in a way that the steps are combined together to reach the disarmament goal. The first step, they said, is confidence-building, while the second and third steps are "operational and structural" arms control processes, respectively.
Operational arms control refers to the repositioning of front-line military equipment or facilities to make them less threatening to a potential adversary, while structural control means cutting the numbers of troops and weapons systems.
Cross-border trust-building endeavors have not been restricted only to the military domain. Bilateral exchanges and cooperation in various areas, such as the humanitarian issue of families separated by the Korean War, have facilitated the efforts.
"Inter-Korean sports exchanges and joint teams, cultural performances, joint liaison office, joint survey of railway tracks connecting the two Koreas, military-to-military talks, joint excavation of historical sites, etc.," said Shawn Ho, a security researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
"There is a long list of areas where the two Koreas are in regular contact to aim to build trust and improve relations which at the same time will help the denuclearization process," the researcher added.
Despite enhanced inter-Korean trust, distrust between Washington and Pyongyang has persisted.
The North has taken a series of steps in a show of its desire to improve trust with the U.S., including shutting down its major nuclear and missile testing sites, returning the remains of American troops and refraining from showcasing its long-range missiles during a recent military parade.
The U.S. has also taken such measures as suspending its annual regular drills with South Korea and deepening diplomatic engagement with the North, though it has continued its sanctions pressure.
But these measures have yet to clear deep-seated mistrust between the Cold War foes.
U.S. President Donald Trump called off his top diplomat Mike Pompeo's planned visit to the North last month, citing a lack of progress in the North's denuclearization. His administration officials have also been unnerved by the North's refusal to take concrete denuclearization steps, such as a full declaration of its nuclear and missile stockpiles.
"I think that trust (or lack of trust) between the DPRK and the U.S., as well as the issue of which side should be next to make another major move to implement the agreements made in the joint statement (otherwise known as the issue of sequencing), these are the two main obstacles that are hindering major progress on the denuclearization issue," Shawn Ho said.
Further complicating the efforts to foster trust between the U.S. and the North is China, some experts noted.
Trump has indicated that China appears to be part of the reason why Washington's denuclearization talks with Pyongyang have made little tangible progress despite the two sides' stated commitment to the "complete" denuclearization.
"I think we're doing well with North Korea, we'll have to see," he told reporters recently. "I think part of the North Korean problem is caused by our trade disputes with China."
Concerns have lingered that escalating disputes between the two major powers over trade and other issues could erode their trust and hamper cooperation over the North's nuclear disarmament.
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