Monday was the second anniversary of the Panmunjom Declaration.
When South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and held hands with him in Panmunjom two years ago, peace appeared to be drawing closer to the Korean Peninsula.
They vowed to make the peninsula nuclear-free, declare the end of the Korean War before the end of the year, stop hostile activities against each other, establish a joint liaison office, hold family reunions and reconnect railways and roads.
But the declaration faded in meaning.
The North has since kept upgrading its nuclear weapon programs. Rather than stopping hostile activities, it has often tested missiles. The liaison office has been effectively closed. Family reunion events and railway and road reconnection projects have been suspended.
Pyongyang avoided recognizing Seoul as its dialogue and cooperation partner. Rather, it has often ridiculed the South and Moon.
Little progress has been made in denuclearizing the North, which is the key goal of the declaration.
The South Korean government, on the other hand, suspended military drills and set a no-fly zone for military surveillance near the border to abide by the Sept. 19 military agreement that bans hostile activities to each other.
“The COVID-19 crisis could be a new opportunity for inter-Korean cooperation,” Moon said Monday. “At present, it is the most urgent and necessary cooperation task.” He vowed to seek the most “realistic and realizable” way to further inter-Korean cooperation.
In the same vein, the Ministry of Unification and Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport held a ceremony to launch an inter-Korean cooperation project to reconnect a railway along the eastern coast, which had originally linked Busan to the Tumen River on the Russian border.
The government will break ground late next year to install a train track on the 110.9 km South Korean section of the disconnected railroad, and spend 2.8 trillion won ($2.2 billion) on the work over seven years.
Now the South-North relationship is very uncertain and unstable.
Following the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi in February last year, which broke down with no deal, the denuclearization negotiations came to a standstill, freezing inter-Korean relations as well.
The government pushed an array of cooperation projects, but they made no progress after the Hanoi summit. Seoul decided to lay track only on the South Korean side. But without corresponding reconnection work on the North Korean side, the project will end up as mere self-contentment.
Kim has been out of public view for more than two weeks since he was last seen presiding over a party meeting on April 11.
In an exceptional case, he was absent from state celebrations for his country’s biggest holiday, the April 15 birthday of Kim Il-sung, his grandfather and the founder of North Korea.
Rumors and speculation have been flying about the whereabouts and health of the North Korean leader.
The South Korean government has said repeatedly that there have been no “unusual developments” in North Korea, suggesting that rumors about Kim’s possible ill health are untrue. And yet, it must prepare for every possibility.
A day after Moon vowed to expand inter-Korean cooperation, the US State Department said it was in consultation with Seoul to ensure inter-Korean cooperation must keep step with the progress of denuclearizing the North, a local newspaper reported.
This indicates that Washington keeps its existing position that the South should avoid speeding cooperation with the North in a situation where denuclearization talks have shown little progress.
This does not look like the proper time to try to expand cooperation with the North. The mention of cooperation when the North leader’s whereabouts and health are unknown sounds hollow and unrealistic.
South-North relations can improve when the North responds positively and sincerely to the South’s offer. The North’s attitude must be changed, but the South needs to put a top priority on denuclearization and take a prudent and long-term approach.
Now is the time to keep an eye on movement in the North and prepare for every possibility, while avoiding hasty moves.