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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Sept. 8)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:00 September 08, 2023

Perilous peninsula
Seoul must engage in diplomacy to lower tensions

If media reports are correct, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet early next week.

The diplomatic calculus is just right for the first summit between the two authoritarian leaders in four-and-a-half years. Russia badly needs North Korea's artillery shells and missiles for its protracted war in Ukraine. Pyongyang wants Moscow's technology for spy satellites, nuclear-powered submarines and economic aid, including food.

Such transactions, if materialized, are morally and legally unacceptable.

By providing lethal weapons for the unjustifiable war initiated by Russia, the North will worsen and prolong the Ukrainian people's plight. Russia, a standing member of the U.N. Security Council, will violate the council's resolutions by helping Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

So, it was natural that Washington warned that Pyongyang would "pay a price" if it reached any arms deal with Russia. Seoul also urged Moscow to stop military cooperation with Pyongyang immediately.

However, these warnings may fall on deaf ears for both Kim and Putin. Putin could point out that President Yoon Suk Yeol hinted at sending lethal weapons to Ukraine in an interview with Reuters in May. The threat of additional U.N. sanctions against North Korea also won't likely change Kim's mind. The young North Korean leader may think Pyongyang has little left to lose due to the prolonged U.S. blockade.

Renewed military ties between Moscow and Pyongyang are a nightmare for Seoul. In 1950, the North started the Korean War, armed with former Soviet weaponry. Even more dangerous is China's possible inclusion with the two, making it a three-way bloc against the three-nation "quasi-alliance" of the U.S., Japan and South Korea. That will turn back the clock on this divided peninsula to 73 years ago once more. Beijing might already have decided so, to counter Washington and outdo Moscow in influencing Pyongyang.

The U.S., South Korean, and Japanese leaders must have fully considered the ongoing development when they met at Camp David last month. If not, they are self-centered to an unrealistic extent. However, in any alliance or "quasi-alliance," the weakest link suffers first and recovers last. The Korean Peninsula or the Taiwan Strait are likeliest candidates for military conflict between superpowers in this region. If it occurs here, prosperous South Korea has far more to lose than the impoverished North. However, both will suffer destruction beyond reparation.

That explains why successive governments in Seoul have struggled to create an enduring peace structure for this divided peninsula. But there were differences among governments. Liberal presidents sought to engage the North and denuclearize it as a result of detente. Conservative ones demanded denuclearization first, putting an end goal as a precondition for talks and freezing inter-Korean exchanges.

Conservatives accused liberals of assisting the North to gain more time to complete its nuclear weapons program while pretending to talk. Liberals thought that the hawks in Seoul and Washington left Pyongyang with no other options.

A case in point is right-wing President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013). Due to antipathy toward his center-left predecessors and misjudgment that the North would collapse soon, Lee reversed their engagement policies and returned to confrontation. Inter-Korean ties had been in the doldrums for a decade until another liberal, Moon Jae-in, revived them.

Now, things can be no more similar to back then. The incumbent government copied the Lee administration from policies to personnel. After meeting with Lee and his close aides, a U.S. official reportedly said, "They are pro-U.S. and pro-Japan to the bone." Another U.S. official may make a similar remark after meeting President Yoon Suk Yeol and his confidants.

The former Lee administration at least tried to talk with the North in a unilateral way. But the incumbent government is not even doing so, severely downsizing and downgrading the unification ministry.

It may be idle to argue who's right or wrong. What is certain ― and urgent ― now is to keep this divided peninsula from returning to the mid-20th century.

Repeating, and not overcoming unfortunate and shameful history, is a crime for descendants.

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