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?
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.
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.