Sum­mit Fever

De­spite a few false starts, the U.S. could still reach a de­nu­cle­ariza­tion deal with North Korea. If only it doesn’t mis­read the signs

Newsweek - - Periscope - BY BILL POW­ELL @bil­la­sia2010

after his last trip to py­ongyang in july, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo knew that Wash­ing­ton’s ef­forts to dis­man­tle North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram were flail­ing. Kim Jong Un had snubbed Pom­peo on the trip, vis­it­ing a potato farm out­side the cap­i­tal in­stead. Just over a month later, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump can­celed Pom­peo’s next visit. “I feel we are not mak­ing suf­fi­cient progress,” he said. It had taken just two months for the glow of Trump’s his­toric Sin­ga­pore sum­mit with the North Korean leader to fade, and the pres­i­dent’s crit­ics in the for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment were glee­ful: “Stunt diplo­macy” had failed.

Now, it seems that assess­ment may have been pre­ma­ture. In early Septem­ber, Kim sent a let­ter to Trump, de­liv­ered from the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone mark­ing the North-south bor­der in Korea. The White House has not di­vulged the con­tents of the note, but the South Kore­ans—who met with Kim in ad­vance of their own sum­mit in Py­ongyang on Septem­ber 18—hinted at the mes­sage in a re­cent state­ment. Kim, said a South Korean spe­cial en­voy, has “un­wa­ver­ing trust” in Trump and wants to achieve the de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of the Korean Penin­sula “be­fore Trump fin­ishes his first term.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the flat­tery worked.

“Kim Jong Un of North Korea pro­claims ‘un­wa­ver­ing faith in Pres­i­dent Trump.’ Thank you to Chair­man Kim,” Trump tweeted. “We will get it done to­gether!” Now, the ad­min­is­tra­tion says it’s con­sid­er­ing mak­ing prepa­ra­tions for an­other meet­ing be­tween Trump and Kim. Such a sum­mit, ac­cord­ing to a White House aide not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly, could be the best way to pre­vent U.S.– North Korea re­la­tions from re­vert­ing to the “fire and fury” hos­til­ity of 2017. Might the North ac­tu­ally move to­ward de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, as the South Kore­ans say Kim sug­gested? Or is the U.S. be­ing played?

It’s no se­cret where Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, John Bolton, comes down. He be­lieves the steps Py­ongyang has taken to date—the par­tial dis­man­tling of a nu­clear test site and the sus­pen­sion of mis­sile tests—are cos­metic, and he doesn’t want the U.S. to ease up on sanc­tions un­til the North makes far more se­ri­ous moves to dis­man­tle its nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity. He also wants the U.S. to again pres­sure China and Rus­sia to re­vive their sanc­tions against the North; the coun­tries lifted them in the wake of the June sum­mit.

But South Korean sources, both in­side and out­side the govern­ment, be­lieve the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion risks badly mis­read­ing the over­tures from the North. That’s why Seoul is scram­bling to keep what one for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial there calls the “spirit of Sin­ga­pore” alive. And South Korean of­fi­cials be­lieve they did that dur­ing a three-day sum­mit in Py­ongyang be­tween Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in and Kim that be­gan Septem­ber 18. Kim agreed to shut down a plant that makes fis­sile ma­te­rial for nu­clear weapons, if Wash­ing­ton makes its own, as yet un­spec­i­fied, con­ces­sions.

(South Korean of­fi­cials de­clined to say what they were be­fore brief­ing Trump.) He also agreed to al­low out­side in­spec­tors to mon­i­tor the dis­man­tling of a rocket launch site. “Very ex­cit­ing!” Trump tweeted af­ter­ward, even though the U.S. be­lieves there are other en­rich­ment fa­cil­i­ties in the North that Py­ongyang has still not de­clared.

On bal­ance, the sum­mit bol­stered those who be­lieve Kim is ready to bar­gain. Among them: the high­est-rank­ing North Korean de­fec­tor, a se­nior mem­ber of the rul­ing party whose fam­ily was very close to the Kim clan in Py­ongyang. In his first ever in­ter­view with Western me­dia (the South Korean govern­ment does not want his iden­tity re­vealed for se­cu­rity rea­sons), he told Newsweek that Kim wants to do two things: en­sure “regime se­cu­rity” for the North Korean govern­ment and put his na­tion on the path to­ward “na­tional eco­nomic pros­per­ity,” of the sort that East Asian na­tions from South Korea to Ja­pan and Tai­wan earned in the se­cond half of the 20th cen­tury. Kim, says the de­fec­tor, “wants a big deal with Trump,” in which the U.S. signs a treaty for­mally end­ing the Korean War and nor­mal­izes re­la­tions with Py­ongyang in re­turn for full “de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.”

The Moon ad­min­is­tra­tion, through its deal­ings thus far with Kim, agrees with this assess­ment. Though left-lean­ing and thus viewed, in the prism of South Korean pol­i­tics, as “soft” on the North, the Moon govern­ment is not naïve. It be­lieves a deal is there to be had—pro­vided the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion un­der­stands that it has to be a deal. That is, that the U.S. must stop in­sist­ing, in pub­lic and in pri­vate, that the North has to ir­re­versibly stand down its nukes be­fore any­thing else can hap­pen.

Py­ongyang thinks the “end of war dec­la­ra­tion is a foothold, the first step in the de­nu­cle­ariza­tion process,” says Cheong Seong-chang, vice pres­i­dent of re­search plan­ning at the Se­jong In­sti­tute, a Seoul think tank, and an oc­ca­sional ad­viser to the Moon govern­ment. “[De­nu­cle­ariza­tion] with no safety mea­sures in place would be tan­ta­mount to get­ting stark naked at the ne­go­ti­a­tion ta­ble with the U.S.”

Di­plo­mat­i­cally, this is a heavy lift. It means both sides have to agree on what they call se­quenc­ing—who’s go­ing to do what first, and when. Any for­mal peace treaty would in­volve the Chi­nese, who lost tens of thou­sands of troops in the Korean War. Skep­tics of the process both in and out of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion worry that Bei­jing and Py­ongyang could in­sist that any for­mal treaty and a nor­mal­iza­tion of re­la­tions means the U.S. has to pull its 28,000 troops out of the South.

That would be a deal-killer for Wash­ing­ton. But the South doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily be­lieve that Kim would in­sist on it. The South Korean en­voy, Chung Eun-yong, says the North Korean leader ad­dressed the is­sue in their Septem­ber 5 meet­ing: “A [for­mal] end-of-war dec­la­ra­tion does not have any­thing to do with the weak­en­ing of the U.s.–south Korean al­liance or the with­drawal of troops, does it?” he quoted Kim as ask­ing. In other words, the troops needn’t nec­es­sar­ily go.

A se­nior South Korean di­plo­mat says Seoul un­der­stands the ner­vous­ness in Wash­ing­ton that sur­rounds nearly ev­ery­thing Trump does—that it would be “much eas­ier” to go back to con­tain­ment and de­ter­rence when it comes to the North, and not reach for “a big deal.” Of­fi­cials there know the Wash­ing­ton con­sen­sus on Kim: Like his fa­ther, he’s sim­ply buy­ing time and hop­ing to gain some eco­nomic ben­e­fits while pre­tend­ing to ne­go­ti­ate.

Seoul is bank­ing on that wis­dom be­ing wrong. And it’s push­ing Trump to do what he claims to do best: make a deal.

Ac­cord­ing to a high-rank­ing de­fec­tor, Kim wants to put North Korea on the path to­ward “na­tional eco­nomic pros­per­ity.”

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