The meeting between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un was picture perfect. Their objectives promised cooperation and peace. The symbolism of the summit could not have been better.
But what the two leaders decided matters little until they act on their promises. And that won’t happen unless President Donald Trump and Kim reach a symbolic and practical agreement. While that is possible, it won’t be easy.
The good of the Korean tete-a-tete is obvious. Two previous South Korean presidents ventured north. This is the first time a North Korean leader has traveled south, even if but a short distance, into the Republic of Korea. Moon plans to visit Pyongyang in the fall and Kim said he is willing to visit Seoul.
Moreover, Kim looked and acted like a modern figure, not a Stalinist caricature, joking about disturbing his counterpart’s sleep with missile tests and acknowledging the poor condition of the North’s roads. Kim also brought both his wife and sister—previously, the North’s rulers kept women, even family members, largely invisible, especially overseas. Kim demonstrated spontaneity, encouraging Moon to step over the demarcation line into the North.
The two leaders walked together past a South Korean honor guard and engaged in talks during which time all the right words were expressed. Kim was quoted as saying: “I came here to put an end to the history of confrontation.” Moon and Kim set as objectives negotiating and cooperating on various issues, reuniting divided families, ceasing “hostile acts,” formally ending to the Korean War, which remains only in abeyance through an armistice, establishing a liaison office in the border town of Kaesong, and undertaking phased disarmament. They also “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
There were some smaller practical positives as well. For instance, before the summit the two countries established a direct phone link between the two leaders. Irrespective of the pleasantries expressed by the two leaders, so long as the peninsula is loaded with military personnel and materiel, conflict remains possible. Creating a communication channel could help keep the peace.
That outcome creates a positive atmosphere for the Trump-Kim meeting, which is expected in May or more likely in June. Moon previously said he saw himself as a mediator: “What we can do is to try to help the North and the United States reach an agreement, helping them narrow their differences and seeking and presenting practical ideas both sides can accept.”
Despite the obvious value of the summit, it is important to remember that all of this has occurred in the past. Kim is a better diplomat than his father or grandfather. However, the dynasty’s founder, Kim Il-sung, was set to meet South Korean president Kim Young-sam, only to die shortly before that planned summit. Kim Jong-il, father of the current ruler, hosted two South Korean presidents: Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, for whom Moon was chief of staff. Kim’s father also met Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and almost scored a summit with President Bill Clinton.
These meetings led participants to hold hands, sing patriotic tunes, exchange heartfelt compliments, and even dance a bit. Out of the summits emerged the “Sunshine Policy,” which transferred some $10 billion in money and aid to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Zone was opened, eventually attracting more than 120 South Korean firms and yielding some $90 million in hard currency to the North annually.
Within just a few years, however, the Sunshine Policy was kaput, North Korea was conducting both nuclear and missiles tests, the North and South were exchanging artillery fire, the DPRK was testing ICBMs along with nuclear weapons, and the U.S. president was threatening to unleash “fire and fury” in return. The two sides have different explanations as to why things went so bad so quickly. But obviously nothing about peace on the peninsula can be taken for granted.
Moreover, the only summit that really matters is between Trump and Kim. Unless Moon is willing to send American troops home, he will always be the junior partner in the alliance with America. And that means accepting Washington’s willingness to go to war “over there,” in Sen. Lindsey Graham’s infamous words, irrespective of the cost to the two Koreas and their neighbors. The Republic of Korea could scarcely escape the consequences of conflict between the United States and North Korea.
Although Moon has done his best to create a positive environment for the planned Trump-Kim meeting, several important questions remain:
– Is Kim willing to yield up weapons that cost so much to develop, are so tied to his dynasty’s legitimacy, give the regime international status, and offer the only sure deterrent to overwhelming American conventional power? Even if Kim is theoretically willing to do so, then what security assurances will he demand, given Washington’s dangerous proclivity for regime change, unwillingness to defend Ukraine, which yielded its nukes, willingness to take out Muammar el-Qaddafi after he surrendered his, and readiness to tear up past agreements, such as the JCPOA with Iran?
– Is Trump willing to offer more than verbal assurances and paper guarantees to Kim in exchange for full and irreversible denuclearization? Does Trump understand that while his threats increased Kim’s incentive to talk, they also increased Kim’s need for more than meaningless promises like those offered to Libya and Ukraine? Would Trump put the U.S. troop presence in South Korea on the table, since sixty-five years after the end of the Korean War the Republic of Korea is fully capable of providing for its own defense?
– Is it possible to create an inspection regime that can certify to Washington’s satisfaction the elimination of unknown nuclear weapons and unknown missiles from unknown locations? Would such an intrusive system, so inconsistent with the North’s past emphasis on independence, be acceptable to Pyongyang? Could the Republic of Korea, the United States, Japan and other nations ever be certain that the DPRK had eliminated its nuclear and missile capabilities?