Kim Jong Un should seize the chance to end nu­clear cri­sis

Im­por­tant as nu­clear arms are to North Korea’s lead­ers, Kim should re­spond se­ri­ously to the favourable con­di­tions of­fered by Trump and Moon

The Straits Times - - OPINION - Chon Shi-yong

This week, South Korean Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in flies to Py­ongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The United States and North Korea are work­ing to set up a sec­ond meet­ing be­tween US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Mr Kim. Th­ese de­vel­op­ments cer­tainly raise hopes for a rein­vig­o­ra­tion of ne­go­ti­a­tions on de­nu­cle­aris­ing the North, which were pro­pelled for­ward by the sum­mits in­volv­ing the three lead­ers held in quick suc­ces­sion ear­lier this year.

But op­ti­mism should be guarded. A so­lu­tion to the nu­clear cri­sis, which has threat­ened se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity in the re­gion for a quar­ter of a cen­tury, will not come soon and eas­ily. The his­tory – in­clud­ing what has hap­pened in the short months be­fore and af­ter the his­toric Trump-Kim meet­ing in Sin­ga­pore in June – tells you why the prospects should not be all bright.

There have been twists and dis­rup­tions, like Mr Trump’s abrupt abor­tion of the sum­mit it­self, which he re­voked even­tu­ally; the re­cent can­cel­la­tion of a visit to Py­ongyang by his Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo and, more im­por­tantly, Mr Kim’s fail­ure to fol­low up on his promise to de­nu­cle­arise.

There will be more twists, big and small, and no­body should be swayed by a sin­gle event or de­vel­op­ment.


Nev­er­the­less, fresh mo­men­tum is needed as the two sides are dead­locked over what should come first – declar­ing an end to the Korean War, which the North re­gards as a means to se­cure its safety, or con­crete steps to­wards de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion. That brings a sense of deja vu. There has been a vi­cious cir­cle in the Korean nu­clear cri­sis that started in 1993 with the North’s with­drawal from the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty: The com­mu­nist coun­try makes provo­ca­tions, seeks re­wards in con­se­quent ne­go­ti­a­tions, and then de­rails the talks or swal­lows its prom­ises, only to re­vert to hos­til­ity.

In the mean­time, the regime con­tin­ues to en­hance its nu­clear and mis­sile ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

The two ma­jor agree­ments in the past fit­ted well into this cy­cle – the 1994 Agreed Frame­work signed by the US and the North and the 2007 Six-Party Talks ac­cord. Both ar­ranged for other coun­tries to pro­vide eco­nomic as­sis­tance and en­ergy sup­plies to the North in ex­change for de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion. But both fell through, giv­ing the North time to con­duct as many as six nu­clear tests and de­velop a mis­sile it claims is ca­pa­ble of hit­ting the US main­land.

Will the cur­rent leader take a dif­fer­ent path from his grand­fa­ther and fa­ther?

The North’s found­ing fa­ther, Mr Kim Il Sung, had fos­tered nu­clear am­bi­tions since the 1950s and ex­pe­dited the weapons programme since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, which co­in­cided with the with­drawal of US nu­clear weapons from South Korea.

His son and the cur­rent leader’s fa­ther, Mr Kim Jong Il, de­spite land­mark sum­mits with two lib­eral South Korean pres­i­dents, Mr Kim Dae-jung and Mr Roh Moo-hyun, held on to the North’s nukes and mis­siles.


Dur­ing the crises, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, led by the US and South Korea, was en­gaged in diplo­matic ne­go­ti­a­tions with the North Korean lead­ers. But the Kim fam­ily never in­tended to give up nukes and kept cheat­ing their way out of the crises.

Mr Kim Jong Un re­cently com­plained that the US does not trust his com­mit­ment to de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion de­spite what he has done – de­mol­ish­ing a nu­clear test site and a mis­sile en­gine test­ing fa­cil­ity. But the world well re­mem­bers a 2008 pub­lic­ity stunt by the North in which it in­vited the in­ter­na­tional me­dia to cover the dis­man­tle­ment of a cool­ing tower in Yong­byon, its main nu­clear site.

The North con­ducted its sec­ond nu­clear test the fol­low­ing year. This track record re­in­forces doubts about the 34-year-old Mr Kim’s promise to aban­don nu­clear weapons, which the Kim fam­ily has cher­ished as a means to pro­tect the coun­try from for­eign in­va­sion and per­pet­u­ate its dy­nas­tic rule.

In or­der to dis­pel the scep­ti­cism, Mr Kim needs to take sub­stan­tial steps, like declar­ing an in­ven­tory of the North’s nu­clear and mis­sile ca­pac­i­ties and open­ing them to in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tion.


One thing Mr Kim should re­mem­ber is that he is deal­ing with Mr Don­ald Trump, a man who is very dif­fer­ent from the US lead­ers his grand­fa­ther and fa­ther faced. Mr Kim and the world need to think about the pos­si­bil­ity of Mr Trump, whose al­ready-dis­puted lead­er­ship style had been fur­ther plagued by the chaos in his ad­min­is­tra­tion caused by Bob Wood­ward’s book Fear and an anony­mous op-ed piece in the New York Times, us­ing for­eign pol­icy is­sues like North Korea for his po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage.

The anony­mous writer said that meet­ings with Mr Trump “veer off topic and off the rails, he en­gages in repet­i­tive rants, and his im­pul­sive­ness re­sults in half-baked, ill-in­formed and oc­ca­sion­ally reck­less de­ci­sions that have to be walked back”.

True, an is­sue like the North Korean nu­clear cri­sis is the last thing to be dealt with by the oc­cu­pant of the Oval Of­fice in such a man­ner. But no one can rule out the pos­si­bil­ity of Mr Trump mis­cal­cu­lat­ing and mak­ing an im­pul­sive de­ci­sion – one which could re­sult in a catas­tro­phe for the North and the world.

Pres­i­dent Moon’s role as a me­di­a­tor should be em­pha­sised in this re­spect. It was then South Korean Pres­i­dent Kim Young-sam who per­suaded Mr Bill Clin­ton not to bomb Yong­byon at the peak of the first nu­clear cri­sis in 1994.

Mr Moon, a strong ad­vo­cate of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the North, had bro­kered the Sin­ga­pore sum­mit, and he is push­ing for vig­or­ous rec­on­cil­i­a­tion pro­grammes with the North to the de­gree that there are con­cerns about caus­ing cracks in the UN-led sanc­tions against Py­ongyang. It is also for­tu­nate that Mr Trump still speaks well of Mr Kim.

Mr Kim should take ad­van­tage of th­ese favourable con­di­tions. Un­like him, both Mr Trump and Mr Moon have a lim­ited time in of­fice, and they may en­counter po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion to their North Korea poli­cies un­less they achieve no­tice­able progress in de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion in the near fu­ture.

Mr Kim said he wants his coun­try to achieve faster eco­nomic growth than China and Viet­nam. Tak­ing ac­tion to dis­arm, not mak­ing prom­ises, should be his first step.

The Asian Writ­ers’ Cir­cle is a se­ries of col­umns on global af­fairs writ­ten by top ed­i­tors and writ­ers from mem­bers of the Asia News Net­work and pub­lished in news­pa­pers and web­sites across the re­gion.


US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un tak­ing a break dur­ing their his­toric sum­mit meet­ing at the Capella Ho­tel in Sin­ga­pore in June. Mr Kim re­cently com­plained that the US does not be­lieve in his com­mit­ment to de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion.

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