BY PRABASI NEPALI
US President Donald Trump has agreed to a historic first meeting in person with Kim Jong Un in an extraordinary development in America’s high-stakes nuclear standoff with North Korea. Standing in front of the White House, South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong, after meeting Kim first in Pyongyang and then briefing Trump, announced the first ever meeting between a serving US president and a supreme North Korean leader, which he said would take place by the end of May. Chung said Kim “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible.” Trump himself hailed via tweet “great progress” in the effort to persuade Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons programme and that there would be no missile testing during this period of time. However, sanctions would remain until an agreement is reached. South Korean President Moon Jae-in described the news of the pending summit “like a miracle” in the latest move in a developing détente. He also said: “If President Trump and Chairman Kim meet following an inter-Korean summit, complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula will be put on the right track in earnest.”
North and South Korea had exchanged envoys as Pyongyang sent a delegation to the South’s Winter Olympics (including Kim’s trusted sister), which Seoul had styled the “Peace Games”. The thaw came unexpectedly after a period of extreme hostility between Washington and Pyongyang that sounded like the growing drumbeat of war. Just months ago, Trump mocked Kim by calling him “Little Rocket Man”. Kim returned the favor by describing Trump as “mentally deranged” and a “dotard”. The new development is without doubt an extraordinary overture after months of mutual hostility.
After the Second World War and the end of Japanese colonialism in the country, the Korean Peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel and South Korea came under US protection. North Korea invaded the South (which was the beginning of the bloody Korean War), the US intervened, retook Seoul. After the armistice agreed between the two Koreas, the border was the ‘Demilitarized Zone’. Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the two sides were implacable adversaries. In 2002, President George W. Bush described North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil”, accusing it of breaching the 1994 agreement in which it had committed to freeze and dismantle its military nuclear programme in exchange for the construction of civilian reactors.
In the last two decades, the US and North Korea have been engaged in what is perhaps the world’s most dangerous nuclear impasse, with 30,000 US military personnel stationed just over the border in the South and with these and greater Seoul within range of the North’s missile batteries.
Pyongyang’s long race to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the continental US has proved a problem for successive US administrations from Clinton to Bush to Obama and Trump. North Korea tested its first long-range missile in 1998 and its first nuclear bomb in 2006. After the death of his father Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-Un assumed power and intensified his country’s nuclear programme. In 2017, North Korea fired a series of provocative test missiles throughout the year and conducted its sixth nuclear test in September. In August, Trump had threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and Kim targeted the US Pacific island of Guam.
The Trump administration’s policy has been to progressively expand sanctions, tighten the diplomatic pressure and regularly threaten military force. The White House said in a statement that its strategy of “maximum pressure” would continue for the time being. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it would take “some weeks” to arrange the talks and admitted the US had been “surprised” at Kim Jong-Un’s “forward-leaning” stance. Just a day earlier, Tillerson had said the US was “a long way” from negotiations with the North.
Indubitably, South Korea’s hosting of the Winter Olympics gave an unexpected window of opportunity for diplomacy. A South Korean high-level delegation held landmark talks with Kim in Pyongyang last week, returning home saying the North was willing to give up its nuclear weapons if it felt it had no reason to keep them. President Moon Jae-in, who is due to meet Kim in April, said the Trump-Kim meeting “will be recorded as a historic milestone that realized peace on the Korean peninsula.” The South’s standpoint also credited “international solidarity” for the breakthrough, a subtle reference to the [success of] the ever-increasing international sanctions on North Korea.
President Moon has acknowledged there are many obstacles going forward. He is managing expectations resolutely and is undeterred that so much can go wrong. Here in Nepal, he enjoys great sympathy since coming as an ordinary volunteer after the devastating Great Gorkha Earthquake in 2015. His approval ratings did take a hit during the Winter Olympics after he integrated the women’s hockey team with players from the North [denying many players’ participation after years of training] and meeting a general from the North who was guilty of masterminding deadly attacks on the South. His evaluation has since rebounded and in the end he may be proved right. No doubt, his and Trump’s talks with a secretive
Communist state are a huge gamble. But he may just pull it off and reduce the threat of nuclear war – to the eternal gratitude of his own country, the North-East Asia region and the world at large.
China, North Korea’s main economic proponent, has in recent months toughened up its dealings with Pyongyang, including sanctions in key areas like coal and petroleum. This has necessarily put a major strain on the North. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said: “We’re glad that they have finally made this first step . . . The next key step is for all parties to maintain this momentum.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the development was a “step in the right direction.” Japan, which saw North Korean missiles fly over its territory twice last year, responded with cautious optimism. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan would “keep putting maximum pressure until North Korea takes concrete actions toward denuclearization”, and said he hoped to meet Trump ahead of the summit with Kim. The European Union hailed the prospective summit as a “positive development”.
According to the US “Council on Foreign Relations” (CFR), Kim’s invitation to Trump to meet is “both stunning and predictable”. Past efforts at denuclearization have collapsed on a combination of failures to secure verification and North Korean subterfuge, but “have never gone so far in giving the Kim family the prestige or treating North Korea with the strategic weight that it sought for decades.” Thus, the strongest argument for Trump’s approach is that everything else has failed until now, and a US-North Korea summit has never been tried. Therefore, “even a bad deal with Kim may be perceived as a better outcome than a catastrophic conflict with North Korea.”
There is much speculation as to the timing and reason(s) for Kim’s demarche. The parameters of possible motives for Kim “range from desperation to uncanny strategic intuition”(CFR). However, the most thought-provoking aspect of Kim’s initiative and its timing is that “it combines a high personal propensity to take risk with a strong desire to actively manage uncertainties generated by the growing risks to North Korea’s regime survival.” South Korean President Moon’s revival of the ‘sunshine policy’ and outreach to North Korea started the ball rolling, and he was, therefore, ‘the right man, in the right place, at the right time’. The way forward – even for Trump later – will now hinge on what he can first achieve in Pyongyang.