Dhaka, Bangladesh
'We cannot wait anymore'

'We cannot wait anymore'

Choi Sung-jin

Over the past five days Koreans have seen, with a heavy heart, two historic anniversaries come and go. Twenty years ago Monday, the two Koreas' top leaders met for the first time, agreeing to leave five decades of hostility behind them and move toward reconciliation and eventual reunification. Two years ago last Friday, the two highest officials of the United States and North Korea also had an unprecedented summit. Their agreement, too, raised hopes of the start of a new era for this divided peninsula, one that was free from military conflicts and nuclear weapons. Now, both events seem like stories from long ago. In little more than a week, the North fired a continuous volley of verbal attacks against the South while cutting all communication lines between the two Koreas. When the US expressed its disappointment with the communist state's hostile moves, Pyongyang told Washington to "hold its tongue and mind its internal affairs," which would also be useful for the U.S. presidential elections. Given these statements' harsh expressions and acrimonious content, the North's leadership seems to have spent the two anniversaries with far keener senses of frustration than their South Korean or U.S. counterparts. The seemingly abrupt accusations made by North Korea against its capitalist adversaries have kept pundits, here and abroad, busy interpreting Pyongyang's intentions behind the deprecating comments. The North's patience? or rather its economic staying power? has reached its limits amid unrelenting sanctions, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent national lockdowns. As Pyongyang saw it, South Korea and its leader Moon Jae-in would not break away from the international rank of sanctions to come to the North's aid despite various inter-Korean accords. The Trump administration is also too busy dealing with the pandemic and nationwide protests against racism to care about North Korea. Come to think of it, however, the North's breaking away from the South or the US has long been coming. Toward the end of 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued an ultimatum to Seoul and its ally across the Pacific, threatening to send them a "Christmas gift"? assumed to be nuclear or missile provocations? if the North's conditions were not met. Kim, in his New Year's message, reiterated that the North would find a "new way" ? ironically going back to the old way of perfecting nuclear programs and enhancing economic self-reliance. COVID-19, which has disrupted everyone's lives for months, might have delayed Kim's actions. Right or wrong, the North's ongoing moves have been predictable to anyone who has followed the Korean issue with little more than a six-month memory span. What should Seoul and Washington do, then? As always, hawks demand an eye-for-an-eye tactic of repaying insults with insults. That would be gratifying emotionally and temporarily but will turn things back to 2017, as the Koreas have wasted at least the past two decades. Right-wingers in Seoul and Washington say the North had no intent to denuclearize from the start, and any ostensible vows were just gestures or deceptions to buy time and earn economic aid. I am poorly qualified in terms of intelligence to judge their allegations. One thing seems quite sure, however. The dialogue is not sustainable if one side demonizes the other. If the rightists were right, America should not have started nuclear negotiations at all. As a longtime observer of inter-Korean affairs sees it, Bill Clinton might have been the only US leader both able and willing to resolve the North's nuclear crisis had he stayed in the White House a little longer. George W. Bush spent most of his tenure calling North Korea a demon. Barack Obama could have rekindled the amber but had too little political capital to dare to face down the U.S. military-industry complex. Donald Trump just wanted to get four more years by appearing to be a problem solver. Faced with the criticism that Kim duped him in Singapore in June 2018, Trump tried to make even in Hanoi eight months later by virtually nullifying the previous agreement. So he repeated what Obama did through most of his eight years of "strategic patience" ? setting up the final goal as a precondition, saying, "Denuclearize first and we will give you what you want." However, North Korea bet all, including countless people's lives, on securing the nuclear weapons that it sees as its sole means of survival. The North will not and cannot accept anything less than a simultaneous action-for-action implementation program. President Moon arranged the Trump-Kim summit, hoping? naively in hindsight? that the smooth nuclear bargaining between them would help improve inter-Korean relations. Now Moon is caught in a nutcracker between angry North Korea and aloof America, like most of his predecessors were. He has two options? accept the hawks' advice and return to the Cold War days or seek a more independent route by reestablishing inter-Korean ties, hoping the improved relationship would also lead to the gradual easing of the nuclear crisis. For now, the President appears to be leaning toward the latter. On the 20th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit on Monday, President Moon called on North Korea not to give up the journey to peace. "We have come to a time when we cannot wait anymore for the conditions to improve," Moon said, proposing that the two Koreas push for joint projects that they can decide as the "master of the Korean Peninsula's fate." The remark should have come some 16 months ago. Moon must turn his words into action, through persuasion and perseverance, because that is the best way the Koreas should go. There will be opposition to Moon's policy shift from within and without. However, now is the time when Moon should emulate the traits of his two progressive predecessors ? Kim Dae-jung's wisdom and great perspective as well as the guts and out-of-the-box thinking of his former boss, Roh Moo-hyun, who once said, "Can't we get a little anti-American sometimes?"

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