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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on May 26)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:04 May 26, 2021

Ball in N.K.'s court
: No sign of Pyongyang responding to Moon's push to reactivate stalled peace process

Attention is being drawn to how North Korea will respond to what emerged from last week's summit between the leaders of South Korea and the U.S. with regard to the allies' approach to the nuclear-armed recalcitrant regime.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden affirmed their commitment to dialogue with the North. A joint statement issued after their summit at the White House made clear the Biden administration's commitment to previous inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea accords, including the Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement that Moon and Biden's predecessor Donald Trump signed with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in 2018, respectively.

Biden backed Moon's push to revive his stalled Korean Peninsula peace process by clarifying his willingness to engage diplomatically with the North. At the same time, he made it clear Pyongyang should take concrete steps toward dismantling its nuclear arsenal to secure significant concessions from Washington, including sanctions relief.

The joint statement also said Moon and Biden agreed to work together to improve the human rights situation in the North while committing to continue facilitating the provision of humanitarian aid to the neediest people in the impoverished state.

Acknowledging previous accords between the two Koreas and between Washington and Pyongyang could be seen as intended to give Kim a pretext for returning to denuclearization negotiations with the U.S. and inter-Korean talks. But it may still fall short of ensuring changes in the intransigent attitude of the North, which has demanded all hostile acts toward it should be withdrawn before talks are resumed.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the ball is in Pyongyang's court, stressing that the question now is whether the reclusive regime is also ready to engage.

The North has remained silent on the results of the Moon-Biden summit, in a possible reflection of difficulties with taking its position. It may not be easy for Pyongyang to reject outright Biden's commitment to diplomatic engagement. But it is unlikely to gain significant concessions from Washington without taking sincere steps toward denuclearization in the course of what Blinken said would have to be "clearly calibrated diplomacy."

The Kim regime may opt to hold out to consolidate its status as a nuclear-armed state, leaning on aid from its only remaining ally China. It could also turn to some measured provocative acts in a bid to draw Washington closer to its terms of a nuclear deal.

This situation would be what the Moon government wants to avoid as it seeks to make a breakthrough in stalled inter-Korean ties before Moon leaves office in May next year. Improved relations with Pyongyang would also be needed to heighten the chance of a candidate from his ruling party winning the upcoming presidential vote about 10 months from now.

Seoul is expected to seek to ease strained inter-Korean ties by promoting humanitarian aid to Pyongyang and arranging for the reunion of families separated by the division of the peninsula. South Korea's Unification Ministry has built the system to enable video reunions amid the prolonged coronavirus pandemic.

If progress is made in such reconciliatory efforts, the Moon government may propose holding yet another summit between Moon and Kim. They held three meetings in 2018, including one at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom. Moon might move to set the stage for a possible summit between Biden and Kim if his additional meeting with Kim yields significant progress toward denuclearizing the North.

In a joint press conference with Moon following their talks, Biden said he might meet with Kim only on the condition that Kim make a serious commitment to discuss giving up his state's nuclear arsenal, which would have to be verified in pre-meeting negotiations.

The Biden administration is apparently in no rush to engage with Pyongyang, while waiting for the launch of the Moon government's successor in Seoul to proceed with the allies' long-term coordinated strategy. It may hope Seoul will be more positive toward resuming joint field training exercises between the allies and repealing the controversial law prohibiting North Korean defectors here from flying anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border into the North.

The Moon administration could do better to consolidate the South Korea-U.S. alliance by taking such moves rather than making a hasty and vain attempt to draw the North back to dialogue.

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