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World must be wary, but also ready for change in light of joint Korean declaration

TOKYO -- Panmunjom, where the North-South Korean summit was held April 27, is an international tourist spot. As the world's only "living" symbol of the Cold War paradigm, both North and South Korea are attracting foreign tourists to the village.

According to the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula signed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the summit, "South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."

This is an enormous shift, considering that North Korea had long refused to even discuss the nuclear issue with South Korea.

Specific measures and policies have been shelved until the U.S.-North Korea summit, which will be held by June. But a tectonic shift will take place in East Asia's Cold War order if North Korea actually denuclearizes. While one cannot be too optimistic, various countries are likely taking steps with that possibility in mind.

The Korean Peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial rule with Japan's defeat in World War II, but was divided in two as tensions between the U.S. and the then Soviet Union grew. Almost the entire peninsula became a battlefield, with several million casualties recorded in the Korean War (1950-1953), and Korea's role as a Cold War front line was solidified.

In the rest of the world, the Cold War ended some 30 years ago, with East and West Germany achieving reunification in 1990. The Cold War order remained, however, in East Asia, the main cause being the failure of cross-recognition of North Korea by the U.S. and Japan, and of South Korea by China and the Soviets.

China and the U.S.S.R. established diplomatic relations with South Korea, but negotiations between the Japan-U.S. camp and North Korea came to a standstill when they ran into challenges such as North Korea's suspected nuclear arms development program and the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents. As a result, North Korea became increasingly isolated within the international community, and found itself in dire straits both in terms of its economy and national security. This led North Korea to accelerate its development of atomic weapons.

At the summit, both Kim and Moon emphasized the necessity of legally bringing the Korean War to an end. The institutionalization of peace holds significant meaning, but that alone is not enough.

To ensure that North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons will ultimately necessitate a resolution to the main problem that has remained throughout the Cold War period -- relations between the Japan-U.S. camp and North Korea.

At that point, improved Japan-North Korea relations will be indispensable. A failure to solve the issue of Japanese abductees could have repercussions across the entire region. The situation will require Japan to exercise its diplomatic capacity to the fullest to simultaneously pursue the dismantling of the Cold War paradigm and resolve the abduction issue.

Looking back on what has happened in the past, it is hard to have faith in North Korea. It is only natural to harbor suspicions that the country will not act in accordance with agreements it signs with other countries.

However, at major turning points such as the end of a Cold War, history has repeatedly shown us that what's considered "normal" can become obsolete overnight.

Will Panmunjom metamorphose from a "living" symbol of a Cold War to a historical artifact? It is important to be wary of North Korea, but we must be sensitive to any hints of change.

(Japanese original by Katsumi Sawada, Managing Editor, Foreign News Department)

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