South Korea has critical peace balancing act with North Korea

South Korea has critical peace balancing act with North Korea
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On April 20, at 3:41 p.m. in Seoul, a staff member of South Korean President Moon Jae In placed a telephone call from the Blue House to Pyongyang. An official at the State Affairs Commission headed up by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un answered the phone and then returned the courtesy. This was all part of successful testing for the new communication hotline, installed ahead of the significant bilateral talks between South Korea and North Korea set to begin Friday.

“It was like calling next door,” the South Korean government said. It also may one day be remembered as the four minutes and 19 seconds that served as a prelude to the meetings between the two leaders at Panmunjom. The historic meeting, with potential for progress in critical inter-Korean relations and penisular denuclearization, comes amid so much celebrated momentum for successful negotiations that the South Korean government arranged for global live summit broadcast. It even launched a social media “event” for celebrity and citizen engagement.

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There was something else Moon’s administration also promoted. “The upcoming inter-Korean summit will serve as a guide for the summit between North Korea and the United States,” the Blue House said. If there had been a question about the diplomatic nuances before, there it was in black and white clarity. South Korea views itself as the steward of new process consistent with Washington’s view that the current moment must be directed firmly by the top leadership of each nation.

Thus, Moon remains in close contact with the White House in plans to achieve regional security and summit results. Moreover, Moon was quick to welcome Kim’s public declaration to close North Korea’s nuclear test site and stop test launches of mid-range and long-range missiles, stating it will become “a guide for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the settlement of permanent peace.”

As it begins, the inter-Korea summit appears to work advantageously for both American President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE and Japanese President Shinzo Abe, who conferred last week about shared strategy and goals. CIA director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoDemocrats release two new transcripts ahead of next public impeachment hearings McConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran MORE’s recent visit to Pyongyang has furthered the frank exchanges of views among top figures and extended the practice that summit dialogue is good diplomacy.

The Korean dialogue includes attaining economic, social and security objectives unique to the Korean experience. Talks between the two nations contemplate a peace treaty to end the war, seemingly contingent on Kim’s denuclearization plans. This is complicated depending on what “denuclearization” means to each of the parties engaged in the negotiation. The devil in those details will be an even thornier problem for the United States than South Korea. Moon and Kim may settle for interim agreements on the non-nuclear issues, pending the summit between Trump and Kim. But coming away with success, however limited, is in the interest of both leaders.

So too will be the situation as Washington and Pyongyang build from the inter-Korean summit to their own. Kim’s profile of leadership by control is matched well to that of Trump’s style. The two together have the potential for a strong partnership provided they communicate on the basis of objectives rather than egos. If they build a firm foundation supported by their respective administrations and telegraph a spirit of tough but genuine cooperation, they set the stage for an ongoing dialogue that may soon integrate other leaders as well.

As seasoned experts who understand successful denuclearization know, the differences of clarifications and implementation that will be reflected in the U.S.-North Korea meeting are central in ways not operative in the inter-Korean meeting. As Pompeo seems to have conveyed to Kim, it will require a consistent, step by step process, likely to take years, to achieve a new non-nuclear security situation.

This reality focuses all on the potential of the Panmunjom meetings as each regional summit can contribute to the foundation of reversing the bellicosity between Trump and Kim just months ago. Above all, the White House should make no mistake about how critical diplomatic success on some form of denuclearization has become for the North Koreans, and make the commitment to a sustained diplomacy that can yield results.

This path forward may one day be marked by those four minutes and 19 seconds on a newly opened phone line on the Korean Peninsula, but it has security implications for the entire world. That’s worth investing the many months and years to come.

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor Emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He served on the United Nations Security Council panel of experts for North Korea sanctions and was vice president at the United States Institute of Peace.