East Asia Compass

Summit Season: From Inter-Korea to Trump-Kim

12 May, 2018    ·   5465

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra discusses the events that led to the possibility of these summits and their consequences

The news of an inter-Korea summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un earlier this year understandably invited a lot of international attention. Pictures of Kim Jong-un holding hands with Moon Jae-in, smiling and crossing the border together, portrayed the North Korean leader in a very different light. Suddenly, through the power of visual imagery, Kim Jong-un looked like a "mainstream" world leader with whom diplomacy was possible - and perhaps even a discussion of North Korean denuclearisation. However, skeptics of course continue to believe that Kim will not give up the country's nuclear and missile programmes, its only real bargaining chip with the world. Skeptics argue that North Korea has made several such gestures in the past but has reneged each time. This time, also, it is not a change of heart but only a clever strategy to dodge diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions.

US President Donald Trump is also going to hold a summit with Kim Jong-un in late-May or early-June. This will be a historic first meeting between US and North Korean leaders after the birth of North Korea. North Korea has crafted its course of action very carefully, and after accomplishing significant advancement in its nuclear and missile programmes, has offered to give them up if its security is genuinely assured. The about-turn in North Korean behaviour and strategy is not easy to decipher. Donald Trump may attribute the change in North Korea's posture to his policy of ‘maximum pressure’. However, it is not possible to ascertain how much of a role pressure and sanctions played in changing North Korea's approach.

South Korea’s policy under President Moon Jae-in towards North Korea has played a determining role in changing the North Korean posture; certainly more so than Trump's policy of ‘maximum pressure’. South Korea's clever, careful and coordinated policy led to the country's intervention in Trump and Kim's dangerous security exchanges and led to the fixing of a meeting between the US and North Korea. In fact, just a few months ago, Trump and Kim had invented new expressions to demean and demonise each other along with tit-for-tat actions on the ground. It was only after Moon Jae-in’s invitation to North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018 that the sudden flood of inter-Korea visits started. South Korea's strategy has led to visits to the country by almost all important North Korean leaders including Kim Jong-un himself. This has happened because South Korea's approach overlaps with North Korea's quest for an opportunity to re-engage with the world.

Although the Trump administration has sounded its appreciation for the change in North Korea's posture and the outcomes of the inter-Korea summit, the US is still not convinced if North Korea is genuinely ready to be denuclearised. For the same reasons, despite Trump sending his then CIA Director Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang in April 2018, he stressed that the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ would continue for a while. His choice for the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and more importantly, John Bolton as national security advisor also indicates that the US is keeping itself prepared for a tougher approach including military action against North Korea in the future, if it is so required.

North Korea is aware of this perception gap with the US. To address it, North Korea has voluntarily declared a moratorium on its nuclear and missile tests and has also announced the closing down of its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. In the summit meet with South Korea, North Korea tried to send all the right signals to indicate that this time, it is serious. Reports in North Korea's official newspaper Rodong Sinmun are also covering North Korean so-called changed posture and its intent to be denuclearised in the future. Given the successful summit between the two Koreas and North Korea’s several concrete efforts to convince Washington of its sincerity, the US may have to be more cautious and nuanced in its approach towards North Korea.

The US may be firm in its demand for the "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation" of North Korea but it has to avoid inconsistency and absolutism in its messaging. Trump - and his administration - have to avoid making provocative statements through the process. The US must give the process a fair chance, which has been painstakingly articulated by South Korea. It may not be successful, but all possible attempts to make it successful must be made in all sincerity. North Korea demands flexibility in the framework and schedule of denuclearisation, and the US must be ready to show such calculated flexibility. Provocative statements such as the recent one by John Bolton prescribing the Libyan model of denuclearisation for North Korea must be avoided.

It is certainly not going to be easy for the US. Given the nature of the individuals involved in US foreign policy making at the point, many of these expectations may prove to be an over-estimation. However, to resolve a crisis in which millions of lives are at stake, it is important to be optimistic about the possibility of the US would making a deal, rather than breaking it.