Robin Wright /The New Yorker & Reader Supported News – 2018-05-06 00:12:18
Why Trump’s Boasts About the Korea Summit Are Premature
Robin Wright /The New Yorker & Reader Supported News
(April 28, 2018) — “KOREAN WAR TO END!” President Trump declared in a Friday-morning tweet celebrating the Korean summit. “After a furious year of missile launches and nuclear testing, a historic meeting between North and South Korea is now taking place. Good things,” he boasted, “are happening.”
The meeting was indeed an adrenaline-pumping affair, centered on a political odd couple. South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-In, whose parents fled North Korea, is a former human-rights lawyer of humble origins. His father worked in a prisoner-of-war camp; he spent his early years strapped to his mother’s back as she sold eggs. As a student, he went to jail for protesting authoritarian rule in South Korea, only to be elected President in a democratic election, in 2017.
The North Korean leader, Kim Jung Un, is one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights, including allegedly ordering the murder of his brother and uncle. In a land of chronic deprivation, he is a product of rare privilege and a Swiss boarding-school education. He is the third generation of a dynasty that has ruled Pyongyang for seven decades.
Moon and Kim lead countries that have technically been at war since 1950. The conflict was one of the twentieth century’s bloodiest, killing more than two million Koreans, more than thirty-three thousand Americans, and six hundred thousand Chinese, among others. So the mere sight of the two leaders extending arms as they approached the demilitarized zone was heartening.
In a richly choreographed opening, Kim stepped across a wide cement curb that divides the two nations, shook hands with Moon, then escorted him briefly and symbolically back across the curb, into the North. They both walked into the village of Panmunjom for a day of talks. Both beamed.
They were escorted to the Peace House, the venue for the talks, by an honor guard in uniforms from the nineteenth century, when the Korean Peninsula was unified. The guards carried spears and swords — but no guns — on one of the world’s most fortified frontiers.
It wasn’t the first meeting of the leaders of the two countries, although it was the first visit to the South by a North Korean ruler. The meeting provided a rare glimpse of a possible — if not yet probable — dÃ©tente after a year of sometimes breathless escalation, occasionally fuelled by Trump’s tweets. He once lambasted Kim as “little rocket man.”
In January, he tweeted, “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times. Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
The tenor of exchanges shifted abruptly after Kim reached out to South Korea and the US in the New Year, for reasons that are still not completely clear. The inter-Korean talks on Friday were intended, in part, to pave the way for a summit between Trump and Kim by the end of June.
“Things have changed very radically from a few months ago, the name-calling and other things,” Trump said at a joint press conference with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. “Something very dramatic could happen.”
Trump praised President Xi Jinping, of China, for his help in pressuring Pyongyang. He refused to say whether he had already communicated directly with Kim, but he said talks to determine a venue for a meeting have been narrowed down to two sites.
“We’re setting up meetings now,” the President said. “I have a responsibility to see if I can do it. If I can’t, it’ll be a very tough time for a lot of countries and a lot of people. It’s something I hope I can do for the world.”
In a flowery joint statement, the two Koreas pledged to stop hostile acts against each other, to work toward formally ending the war by the year’s end, and to create a future of “complete denuclearization” in the Peninsula.
The Panmunjom Declaration, as the statement was dubbed, said that “improving and cultivating inter-Korean relations is the prevalent desire of the whole nation and the urgent calling of the times that cannot be held back any further.”
The two Koreas also vowed to increase reunions between families that have been split since the war, reconnect an inter-Korean railway, field a joint team for the 2018 Asian Games, and open a new liaison office in North Korea. President Moon agreed to visit Pyongyang in the fall.
Afterward, Kim declared that the two nations are “linked by blood as a family and compatriots who cannot live separately.” The two men embraced. The summitry — and the principles it produced — was widely welcomed, albeit with many caveats.
“Dialogue at this moment is certainly better than a march to war,” Wendy Sherman, a senior State Department official during the Clinton and Obama Administrations, who travelled to North Korea with then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in 2000, told me. “That said, we all need to keep our expectations in check.”
“Kim has grasped the hand of Moon principally because he has the nuclear weapons and the delivery system for those weapons and can now turn his attention to the economic future of North Korea,” Sherman said. “No doubt the many years of sanctions, further intensified in the past months, have had an impact on the North, but Kim remains in the driver’s seaton the way ahead.”
Kim has already received much of what he sought in his overtures to the outside world — and so far has given up nothing. While his star rose on the international stage, Kim was invited for a state visit to China; he was feted as a hero by his southern rival; and he is due to meet with a sitting American President, which his grandfather and father both sought to do, unsuccessfully.
“Not a bad set of plays for a leader of a cult more than a country,” Sherman, a nuclear-weapons expert, told me.
The biggest issue is still the ill-defined term “denuclearization.” President Trump recently defined it as getting rid of North Korea’s entire nuclear program — lock, stock, centrifuges, and bombs. In 1992, the North and South also issued a joint declaration on “denuclearization” — the first time the term was used — because the word “disarmament” was unacceptable, Sherman noted.
Whether Kim totally surrenders — as he might see it — every aspect of the one tool that insures the survival of his regime will be the ultimate test of the talks.
The three-page Panmunjom Declaration is “breathtaking in its scope and ambition,” David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told me in an e-mail. It includes no immediate roadblocks or limits, and no sign that South Korea will reduce sanctions on the North. But the means to achieving denuclearization are left vague.
“Unless a firm foundation and plan for North Korea’s complete verified irreversible nuclear disarmament is laid out with a relatively short schedule (two-three years), most of the other commitments in the declaration are merely wishes,” he wrote.
The success of Friday’s Korean summit will add to the pressure on Trump to make further progress when he meets Kim, the first meeting between a sitting US President and North Korea. The touchy-feely stuff is over. Now the hard part begins, Abraham Denmark, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense who is now the director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, told me.
“An agreement between North Korea and the US will need to include a detailed roadmap for a way forward, including each side’s concessions,” he said. “Seoul will likely press Washington to mirror the optimism and vision we saw at Panmunjom. It remains unclear if the Trump Administration will go along with symbolism or focus on specifics and substance.”
North Korea, Denmark added, is still North Korea. “Kim is still the same person he was when he purged potential rivals, imprisoned thousands of his people, and had his relatives killed. This was a hopeful moment, but extreme caution is well warranted.” For all the buoyant optimism generated by the Panmunjom talks, he said, “there are innumerable opportunities for failure.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.