“When the [South Korean] foreign ministry proudly stated that a US-South Korean Working Group had been formed, I thought [South Koreans] had just ‘shackled ourselves,’” said Jeong Se-hyun, the executive vice-chair of the National Unification Advisory Council, in a lecture held at the National Assembly on June 25. The working group he referred to was created in November 2018 to coordinate denuclearization efforts, sanctions on North Korea, and measures for inter-Korean cooperation between the US and South Korea.

Jeong further noted during the lecture that “since the Working Group was formed, Americans’ intentions were realized in key issues such as the Kaesung Industrial Complex, tourism on Mt. Kumkang, as well as the inter-Korean railway initiative. The group has been an obstacle in [improving] inter-Korean relations…[and] that is why North Korea has been acting out.”

When the North “postponed” military action against the South, Jeong said that “[We] should take this as an opportunity to go back to the Panmunjom Declaration and find a window of opportunity outside of the framework of the Working Group. Only then can we act as a mediator or catalyst in breaking the shackles [we are in] and solve the nuclear issue.” 

Essentially, Jeong has long been claiming that the United States is a “hindrance” to denuclearizing North Korea.

But is it really? While mentioning the country’s nuclear weapons program, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stated during a party congress at the end of last year that “while we desperately want favorable conditions to develop our economy, we cannot sell the dignity we have protected with so much effort in exchange for flashy economic transformation.”

In April, Kim claimed in a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly that “we have to sweep away the sanctions from our adversaries in a self-sufficient, independent manner just like the way we ended a prolonged nuclear threat with nuclear weapons.” 

At a Central Military Committee meeting last month, Kim mentioned enhancing the country’s “deterrence against nuclear war.”

All of these statements show that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons. Even as the North became one of the poorest nations of the world through the failed economic policies of three generations of Kim family leaders, the country has held onto its nuclear weapons. The country’s leadership has firmly believed that their nuclear weapons protect the existence of its authoritarian system.

Jeong is an seasoned expert in North Korea-related matters, and he most likely understands that North Korea will not denuclearize. His statements, however, suggest that he is just trying to drum the same beat as the South Korean government. 

This begs the question: Why is he downplaying the North Korean regime blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office and slandering the South Korean president? It is important to stick to set principles when we deal with North Korea. South Korea cannot become a tool for the North to lift US and international sanctions on the country. Even if inter-Korean dialogue leads to cooperation between the two Koreas, will that solve North Korea’s false commitment to denuclearization and promises of peace?

A recent report from the National Intelligence Service (NIS) outlines North Korea’s intensifying economic difficulties due to the closure of the Sino-North Korean border. According to the report, the North Korean economy has never been worse: trade volume between the North and China stood at USD 230 million at the first quarter of this year, a 55% year-over-year drop. The report even expressed concern about Pyongyang residents engaging in panic buying of essential items. 

North Korea is suffering from economic problems because of sanctions from international society and the closure of the Sino-North Korean border. We need to clearly understand the realities facing North Korea as we watch the country continue to adhere to its nuclear weapons program and promote discord between the US and South Korea.

*Translated by Seongjin Park

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