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If It Gives Up Its Nuclear Arsenal, Accelerating Its Denuclearization: S. Korea Believes Broader Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation Could Show The North a Bright Future
North Korea has conducted no nuclear or missile tests in 2018, and its leader Kim Jong Un sat down for three inter-Korean summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a first-ever summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. 2018 marked the beginning of detente and peace-building on the Korean Peninsula.
A spring on the Peninsula was a dramatic departure from exchanges of insults and threats over North Korea's continued nuclear and missile tests, which drove the United States and North Korea close to the brink of war only last year. A conciliatory mood was rapidly created since Kim extended a rare olive branch to South Korea in his New Year's speech by expressing his willingness to improve inter-Korean ties.
On April 27, they met at the border village of Panmunjom, where they committed to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. They also promised to improve inter-Korean ties, formally end the 1950-53 Korean War and establish a peace regime on the peninsula.
The goodwill gestures by North Korea built momentum for the first-ever summit between leaders of the United States and North Korea. In May, North Korea released three Americans who had been detained in the reclusive country and dismantled its major nuclear test site in Punggye-ri in the presence of international reporters.
The actual construction will not likely proceed yet because of international sanctions against the North, led by the United States as part of its "maximum pressure campaign." South Korea's plans to declare an end to the Korean War and host Kim in Seoul for the fourth inter-Korean summit within the year could not materialize amid a lack of progress in North Korea-U.S. denuclearization talks.
South Korea believes broader inter-Korean economic cooperation could show the North that it could have a bright future if it gives up its nuclear arsenal, thereby accelerating the North's denuclearization. However, the United States is more cautious about the fast pace of inter-Korean developments without tangible progress on the North's denuclearization.
To better coordinate their North Korea policy, the allies in November launched a working group aimed at maintaining close coordination on North Korea's denuclearization, the implementation of international sanctions against the North and inter-Korean cooperation.
For South Korea, this year, 2019, is likely to be a year full of difficult tasks, involving issues ranging from diplomacy and North Korea to economic, social and political matters. The goals of achieving denuclearization in North Korea and peace on the Korean Peninsula also face critical events in the coming months.
On November 29, South Korea sent about 50 tons of pesticides to North Korea to aid its fight against pine tree diseases, according to the Ministry of Unification, amid signs of slow progress on stalled inter-Korean cooperation projects. Vehicles loaded with the chemicals crossed the military demarcation line, the de facto border bisecting the Korean Peninsula.
The materials were loaded at a parking lot in the North's border town of Gaeseong and transferred to the North. A team of 15 South Koreans, including experts and National Forest Service officials, was dispatched to the North as well. They were to inspect the woodlands around Gaeseong with their North Korean counterparts and spray pesticides on the pine trees. Devices such as sprayers were to be provided by the North.
After wrapping up the pest control, both sides were to discuss cooperation measures to protect forests. Modern-ization of tree farms in North Korea and details concerning the project such as site inspections were expected to be dis-cussed as well, according to the official.
Some 2.84 million of the North's 89.9 million hectares of forestland were destroyed in 2008, according to a report released by the Unification Ministry, citing research by the National Institute of Forest Science. The ministry said this research is conducted every 10 years and the latest figures will be announced by the end of the year.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had been voiced his hopes for the reforest-ation of North Korea's mountains since his rise to power in late 2011. Pyongyang has been focusing on its own reforestation plans, aimed at breaking the vicious cycle of deforestation and natural disasters such as floods and landslides, which could ultimately lead to food shortages.
Over the past year, the country has seen its unemployment rate rise to the highest level in 18 years, its factory utilization rate drop to the lowest in two decades and income inequality reach a record high. Such data mean there is no longer any room to wait for Moon's policies to reap their intended results.
Moon's efforts to achieve "lasting peace" on the peninsula would look hollow and even dangerous, if Pyongyang turned out to be just shifting from nuclear and missile tests to the mass production and deployment of nuclear bombs with improved reliability.
His government might be stuck between a nuclear-armed North Korea and a fraying alliance with the United States, if it continues to be eager to provide assistance to the North rather than keeping in step with international efforts to tighten sanctions on the recalcitrant regime.
Moon and his aides should step out of their ideological framework dating back decades to the time they protested military-backed authoritarian regimes in this country. They should no longer be captured by the delusions distancing themselves from changes in the economic and geopolitical environments.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on January 1 reiterated his deter-mination to achieve complete denuclearization and also called for economic development in his annual New Year's address, stressing the need to strengthen the North's defense.
In the address, Kim highlighted last year's developments in inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations, while calling on his country to seek economic develop-ment and modernize its defense industry.
Kim delivered the address while sitting on a sofa in an office with portraits of his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather Kim Il-sung in the background. His previous New Year's addresses had taken place in more formal settings, with Kim standing at a podium, according to the domestic dailies.
Accordingly, while his address included conditions for further talks with the United States, Seoul welcomed the speech as a sign of the North Korean leader's willingness to improve inter-Korean relations and achieve denucleari-zation.
"I am ready to sit face-to-face with the U.S. President again at any time going forward, and will make efforts to produce an outcome the international community would welcome."
Kim also reiterated his "strong will" and the North Korean government's "unchanged" position to pursue better relations with the United States and to seek complete denuclearization. But Kim called on Washington to take "corres-ponding" and "trustworthy" measures to reciprocate steps North Korea has already taken.
Over the past year, the North destroyed a nuclear testing site in Punggye-ri in the presence of international reporters, returned the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War and released detained U.S. citizens.
"If the United States fails to keep its promise to the world and misjudge our patience by unilaterally forcing its ways on us and sticks to sanctions and pressure against the republic [North Korea], we cannot help but find a new path to protect the country's sovereignty and best interests, and achieve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," said Kim.
Although he warned he could explore a "new path," Kim's restrained tone indicates his willingness to maintain the momentum for dialogue with the United States, experts say.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to meet the South's President Moon Jae-in "frequently" next year to discuss denuclearization of the Peninsula in a rare letter sent to Seoul, according to the Cheong Wa Dae office December 30 last year. The leader of the North met with Moon three times in 2018 - twice at the border truce village of Panmunjom and once in the North's capital Pyongyang - as a reconciliatory push gathered pace.
The North's leader "expressed a strong determination to visit Seoul while watching future situation," Cheong Wa Dae Spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told reporters. Kim Jong Un also "expressed an intention to meet with Moon frequently in 2019" to pursue peace and "solve the issue of denuclearizing the Peninsula together,"
Kim's message was delivered merely days ahead of his expected New Year's speech, which analysts say will set the tone for the nuclear talks and determine the momentum of negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang for 2019.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un on January 1 urged South Korea to "completely halt" military exercises with the United States, a move that analysts see as a way of increasing pressure on Seoul and Washington to make reciprocal gestures in response to the North's moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.
"Now that the two Koreas are on the path to peace and prosperity, we insist that joint military exercises with outside forces should no longer be allowed and deployment of war weapons such as outside strategic assets should be completely stopped," said Kim.
While South Korea and the United States have suspended a series of military exercises since the summit between Kim and Trump in April, the allies have hinted that such decisions depend on the outcome of diplomatic engagement with North Korea. While the United States and South Korea have yet to determine the detailed schedule of this year's combined military exercises, speculation is rampant that the allies will scale down the scope of their military drills. ★