North Korean talks need a creative solution
The talks between North Korea and the U.S. are stuck. Only a bold move will get them going again.
That these talks even began is a miracle. Formally, North Korea has been in a state of war with the U.S. and South Korea since 1950. For most of that period, relations have been marked by bluster and threat. The so-called demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is aptly described as the most dangerous border in the world.
So it was remarkable when, earlier this year, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un announced that he wanted to talk to the Americans.
It was even more remarkable when Donald Trump agreed. The meeting of the two in Singapore this summer marked the first time a U.S. president had talked face to face with a North Korean leader.
There is much that can be criticized about the summit. It did not solve the problem posed by North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. Indeed, it did not solve many problems at all.
Trump, as usual, was extravagant and vainglorious in his language.
But it marked the first time in a generation that the two sides had talked at such high levels. And it set the stage for doing something useful.
That the summit took place at all is a testament to the three leaders involved - Kim, Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Kim is not a nice man. He famously kills those who displease him, including his relatives.
But he realizes his country can prosper economically only of it jettisons its decades-long policy of autarkic self-reliance and instead engages the world.
And he is shrewd enough to recognize the opening provided by the election of Moon and Trump.
Moon is the unsung hero of the piece. An advocate of rapprochement between the two Koreas, he took Kim’s peace gambit and ran with it, promoting measures to re-open economic relations with the North while at the same time reducing military tensions. This week Seoul announced that for the first time in a decade South Korean trains would cross into the North to lay the groundwork for linking the two rail systems.
To the dismay of the Americans, Moon has also agreed to disarm guard posts along the border with the North.
Finally, there is Trump. His faults are well known. His foreign policy is far too often based on narrow American chauvinism. He is a notorious egomaniac.
But he is also a clever strategist willing to take risks. In the case of North Korea, he ignored the advice of his own national security establishment and met Kim without demanding preconditions.
Now, however, that initial Trumpian boldness seems to have dissipated. The security establishment, in the form of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has taken over the Korea file.
Increasingly, the Americans and North Koreans are locking themselves into their traditional stalemate. The Americans won’t agree to anything until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons; the North Koreans won’t give up their nuclear weapons until the U.S. ceases to be a military threat.
Trump talks vaguely of another meeting with Kim. But it has not yet materialized.
Too bad. The world has a unique opportunity to get something done here. The stars will not remain aligned indefinitely.
In South Korea, Moon’s approval ratings are beginning to dip slightly. Conservatives who oppose his rapprochement with the North are gaining ground.
It is not clear that his successor, whoever that might be, will continue the policy of reconciliation once Moon’s term ends in 2022. Something more is needed to keep the momentum up. Up to now South Korea has been unwilling to ink a peace treaty with the North unless the U.S. signs as well. Seoul may want to reconsider this.
Realistically, no one expects North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Realistically, no one expects the U.S. to withdraw its troops from South Korea. None of this means, however, that a creative solution is impossible. The three leaders have already made history. They still have a chance to make more.