Be­gin­ning of the end?

Trump’s sud­den can­ce­la­tion of the Us-north Korea sum­mit caused dis­may, but is it all over for the peace process?

NewsChina - - INTERNATIONAL - By Yu Xiaodong

While the Korean Peninsula has been never short of sur­prises, the de­vel­op­ments of the past month have been the most dra­matic since the North and South ceased open fight­ing in 1953.

Roller­coaster

First on April 27, North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong-un met South Korean Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in at Pan­munjom in the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone that di­vides the two coun­tries. A highly an­tic­i­pated his­toric mo­ment, and the third in­ter-korea sum­mit since open fight­ing ceased be­tween the two na­tions in 1953, this was widely con­sid­ered suc­cess­ful and pro­duced a joint state­ment, the Pan­munjom Dec­la­ra­tion for Peace, Pros­per­ity and Uni­fi­ca­tion of the Korean Peninsula, which de­clared that “there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula,” and that “a new era of peace has be­gun.”

Af­firm­ing the “com­mon goal of re­al­iz­ing, through com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, a nu­clear-free Korean Peninsula,” and set­ting short-term goals to ac­cel­er­ate the peace process, it brought much en­thu­si­asm from ob­servers over the prospect of fu­ture talks.

Fol­low­ing es­ca­lat­ing ten­sion the pre­vi­ous month, the cor­dial­ity of the Moon-kim sum­mit con­veyed an air of pos­i­tiv­ity and hope for fu­ture sta­bil­ity and peace on the Peninsula. When US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Kim agreed to meet on June 12 in Sin­ga­pore, many ex­perts looked ahead to a deal that would solve the nu­clear cri­sis in the Peninsula once and for all.

But it was short-lived. Days later, re­la­tions plunged when North Korea canceled a sched­uled fol­low-up meet­ing with South Korea in what the North char­ac­ter­ized as a protest against the re­sump­tion of joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises be­tween South Korea and the US. More­over, when US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser John Bolton sug­gested that the US should adopt the “Libya model” of de­nu­cle­ariza­tion (which many link to the over­throw and bru­tal death of Libyan leader Muam­mar Gaddafi), Py­ongyang balked at the sug­ges­tion and warned it would re­con­sider meet­ing the US Pres­i­dent.

In an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic move, Trump walked back the com­ments say­ing he would not seek the “Libya model” and that North Korea would have “pro­tec­tions” if a deal was made. Then on May 24 he abruptly canceled his meet­ing with Kim, cit­ing Py­ongyang's “hos­til­ity.” Hopes for peace seemed dashed.

For skep­tics the de­vel­op­ment only re­in­forced the view that the new round of talks would be merely the lat­est in a se­ries of talks and agree­ments that ul­ti­mately failed to make a break­through.

Some said the Pan­munjom Dec­la­ra­tion merely mim­icked that of the two pre­vi­ous in­ter-korea sum­mits. One was held be­tween South Korea's Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il of North Korea in 2000, and an­other be­tween Kim Jong-il and South Korean Pres­i­dent Roh Moohyun in 2007. Both failed to achieve last­ing re­sults.

But de­spite these omi­nous signs the fun­da­men­tal fac­tors that had led the lead­ers to con­sider meet­ing in the first place have not changed. While Trump has said he won't meet Kim Jong-un on June 12, there are still rea­sons for op­ti­mism.

A key fac­tor that has given mo­men­tum to the re­cent talks be­tween

North Korea and South Korea has been the unique ap­proach adopted by Kim Jong-un. Com­pared with the con­ser­vatism of his fa­ther Kim Jong-il, Kim the younger has dis­played a more proac­tive ap­proach to for­eign pol­icy.

He raised the stakes by mount­ing nu­clear tests and mis­sile launches. Then in March he sent a sur­prise in­vi­ta­tion to Trump to meet via a South Korean of­fi­cial, and sug­gested he would like to talk about de­nu­cle­ariza­tion. It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary de­vel­op­ment.

Kim the younger ap­pears more au­da­cious than his fa­ther. Af­ter Roh Moo-hyun pro­posed a meet­ing with Kim Jong-il in 2005, the sum­mit was de­layed un­til 2007 amid Py­ongyang's con­cerns about the lo­ca­tion.

Kim Jong-un has shown flex­i­bil­ity on where to meet his South Korean and Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts. Dur­ing his meet­ing with Moon he said he would like to visit Seoul, some­thing that had pre­vi­ously been un­think­able for a North Korean leader.

Ac­cord­ing to Zheng Jiy­ong, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Korean Stud­ies at Fu­dan Uni­ver­sity, Kim's ap­proach stems from a fun­da­men­tal change in his strate­gic pri­or­i­ties. Zhang's view is shared by Kim Byung-yeon, an econ­o­mist and North Korea ex­pert at Seoul Na­tional Uni­ver­sity. Kim Byung-yeon pointed to a five-year eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment plan re­leased by the North Korean leader in July 2017, and his April 20 re­it­er­a­tion that his na­tion would pri­or­i­tize eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, raise liv­ing stan­dards and nur­ture a fa­vor­able in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­ment.

“Kim's pri­mary fo­cus is on eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, which is now the cen­ter of his for­eign pol­icy,” Kim Byung-yeon told Newschina.

De­spite Kim Jong-un's threats to pull out of meet­ing Trump, his views on the shift in North Korea's pri­or­i­ties likely re­main the same. This is pre­cisely why Kim Jong-un changed his rhetoric im­me­di­ately af­ter Trump's let­ter in which he said he was can­celling the meet­ing, say­ing that North Korea is ready to talk “at any time, in any form.”

Moon and Trump

For his part, South Korean Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in dif­fers from his pre­de­ces­sor Park Geun-hye on Py­ongyang. Moon, who as­sumed power last year, made en­gag­ing with North Korea a corner­stone of his for­eign pol­icy dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign. In a key­note speech in Ber­lin last July, Moon pledged that South Korea would take a pri­mary role in re­solv­ing in­ter-korean is­sues. He even said he would seek to meet Kim Jong-un.

While Moon ap­peared side­lined by the re­newed ex­change of threats be­tween Kim Jong-un and Trump, his govern­ment con­tin­ues to fa­vor en­gag­ing with North Korea.

Trump is also very dif­fer­ent from his pre­de­ces­sor. Com­pared to Barack Obama's pol­icy of “strate­gic pa­tience,” which ex­perts dis­missed as “strate­gic pas­siv­ity,” Trump has adopted a proac­tive ap­proach to the Korean Peninsula declar­ing that he would con­sider all op­tions, from “to­tally de­stroy[ing]” North Korea to sign­ing a peace treaty with Py­ongyang. Trump shocked Wash­ing­ton in March when he promptly ac­cepted Kim's in­vi­ta­tion to meet. He would have been the first Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to meet a North Korean leader.

Fol­low­ing the Moon-kim sum­mit, US Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo vis­ited Py­ongyang, re­turn­ing with three Amer­i­can pris­on­ers freed by North Korea in a ges­ture of good­will. Back in Wash­ing­ton, Pom­peo said Amer­i­can in­vest­ment could help de­velop North Korea's econ­omy once de­nu­cle­ariza­tion was achieved, ap­par­ently a pos­i­tive re­sponse to North Korea's new fo­cus on eco­nomic growth.

To a large ex­tent, Kim's threat to pull out of the sum­mit and Trump's de­ci­sion to can­cel can be seen as a ne­go­ti­at­ing strat­egy, rather than a strate­gic de­ci­sion. In can­cel­ing the sum­mit, Trump's rhetoric was un­usu­ally mild, and a sub­stan­tial de­par­ture from his “fire and fury” and “rocket man” com­ments of pre­vi­ous months. There is am­ple room for both sides to con­tinue talk­ing.

While Kim and Trump are both un­pre­dictable, the con­ver­gence of their proac­tive ap­proaches may present a rare chance for a long-term so­lu­tion to the North Korea is­sue, if they do man­age to meet.

Clos­ing the Gap

With both sides tak­ing a proac­tive ap­proach, the ques­tion now is whether the huge po­lit­i­cal gap can be bridged.

In their ear­lier meet­ing, Moon and Kim Jong-un ap­peared to ad­dress some of the stick­ing points. One was North Korea's po­si­tion on the US mil­i­tary pres­ence on the peninsula. Py­ongyang has long blamed the ten­sion on the his­tor­i­cal de­ci­sion to sta­tion US troops in South Korea, and gives the US threat as its rea­son for pur­su­ing nu­clear arms. But ac­cord­ing to Moon, Kim Jong-un dropped his de­mand that the US with­draw its troops from South Korea as a con­di­tion for giv­ing up its nu­clear weapons.

This proved in­suf­fi­cient to close the gap be­tween North Korea and the US. Sec­re­tary of State Pom­peo said the US wanted the im­me­di­ate “per­ma­nent, ver­i­fi­able and ir­re­versible dis­man­tling of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction pro­gram,” which would pre­sum­ably in­volve in­spec­tions in the long term.

North Korea has made clear that its goal is a se­cu­rity as­sur­ance from the US, which could mean sign­ing a peace treaty with South Korea and the US, and could in­clude estab­lish­ing for­mal diplo­matic re­la­tions with the US.

Even if both sides agree on these con­di­tions in prin­ci­ple, syn­chro­niz­ing their steps to ful­fill the agree­ment will re­main a chal­lenge given the lack of mu­tual trust. Py­ongyang might ex­pect swift relief from se­vere eco­nomic sanc­tions in ex­change for aban­don­ing its nu­clear pro­gram, but the US could in­sist on com­pletely aban­don­ing any nu­clear am­bi­tions be­fore it will lift sanc­tions and ease the diplo­matic iso­la­tion. This lack of trust is pre­cisely what has made talks so fraught in the past.

But con­sid­er­ing the two sides were swap­ping nu­clear threats only months ago, the twists and turns pro­ceed­ing their sum­mit may not be sig­nif­i­cant in the long run – if both sides are still will­ing to en­gage in se­ri­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions.

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