Seoul’s concessions expose limitations of Inter-Korean summit

Seoul’s concessions expose limitations of Inter-Korean summit
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South Korean President Moon Jae In just wrapped up hosting his North Korean counterpart for an Inter-Korean summit, the first in more than a decade.

Earlier this week, Moon’s office shared in a press release that world leaders, including Pope Francis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, expressed hope this summit will be conducive to genuine peace on the Korean peninsula. Although this summit saw major progress, with both Koreas pledging to cease hostilities to pursue peace on the Korean peninsula, the Moon administration made concessions to North Korea, which will only encourage hostility since they confirm Pyongyang’s suspicion that it can extort benefits from Seoul without offering concessions of its own.

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A notable development from this summit was Moon and Kim’s mutual pledge to end hostilities to pave the way for peace. Reaching this mutual agreement towards should be a reason to celebrate. Yet, the flaw of this approach is that it emphasizes a paper agreement at the expense of denuclearization, which would actually reduce the threat of war.

Kim and Moon’s joint statement only provides one point about denuclearization with less substance than the other agenda items of establishing peace and reinvigorating inter-Korean engagement. This pays evidence to Moon’s ruling party advocating that denuclearization should not be the priority of inter-Korean talks, but rather a corollary for the “exit stage of negotiations.”

Moon’s supporters have traditionally advocated dialogue on non-confrontational issues, such as economic and cultural engagement, to establish conditions favorable for peace. Past experience shows that prioritizing these rather trivial matters have failed to moderate Pyongyang’s behavior.

We have seen the North Koreans sign similar agreements in the past only to renege on them later. In turn, without the North Koreans demonstrating up front with concrete action toward denuclearization, we will likely repeat our past failures. This will only provide the North Korean government with more time to drag out its diplomatic charm offensive to improve Kim’s public image while also secretly continuing nuclear weapons development in its illegal underground facilities, as it has in the past.

Another noteworthy concession was the Moon government’s decision to give Pyongyang a free pass on its abhorrent human rights violations by leaving this topic off the summit agenda. Despite the overwhelming evidence of North Korea’s crimes against humanity, as reported by a UN Commission of Inquiry in 2014, Moon’s party has consistently avoided talking about human rights lest it “scare Pyongyang away” from the negotiating table. Most notably, the party obstructed the passage of Seoul’s North Korean human rights legislation until it was finally passed in March 2016, more than a decade after the U.S. passed similar legislation in 2004.

Although addressing North Korean human rights is exceptionally difficult and little progress can be made at just one summit, the Moon administration’s decision sends the wrong message to the North Korean people by depriving them of hope that Seoul will hold Pyongyang accountable for its oppression. Already this year, the Moon administration chose to accommodate North Korea at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics rather than insisting that the regime ease its repression before reaping the rewards of Olympic diplomacy.

Rather than abandoning human rights, President Moon should consider the advice of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights that “any advancement on the security dialogue should be accompanied by a parallel expansion on human rights.” As a former human rights lawyer who tenaciously defended South Koreans from the dictatorship they once endured, Moon should recognize the importance of human rights for all Koreans and the need to exert moral pressure on ruthless opponents.

The third concession Seoul made is ignoring the issue of North Korea’s non-nuclear weapons capabilities. In a 2015 report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Defense assessed that Pyongyang “probably possesses a longstanding chemical weapons program with the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents.” North Korea threatens global security through the horizontal proliferation of these weapons to other rogue regimes. This year, the UN Panel of Experts uncovered “substantial new evidence” regarding Pyongyang’s support for Syria’s chemical weapons program. North Korea also proliferates ballistic missile technology, which facilitates the delivery of chemical or biological weapons. For instance, it has engaged in “significant and meaningful” collaboration with Iran.

By ignoring the greatest threats posed by Pyongyang, Seoul surrendered a critical opportunity to test Kim Jong Un’s sincerity. Now is the time to find out if Kim is serious about denuclearization and other measures that could lead to genuine peace, not to avoid confrontation in hopes that Pyongyang will abandon its habit of pocketing concessions and then demanding more.

Mathew Ha is a research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, focused on North Korea. Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.