Here are three things that South Korea should consider in order to improve the situation on the peninsula.
In Korea, there is a saying, “good things are good.” This means that if two sides are in good faith in negotiation, it is better to set aside bothersome details in order to move on. The problems of this phrase are if a “good thing” is also understood as a good one by others and that the impact of untouched details can transpire someday. While President Moon was trying to find the intention behind Trump’s cancellation of the meeting with Kim Jong-un, it is also necessary for him to assess factors attributable to himself. In order to lead the current situation to a more optimistic future, there are at least three things South Korea should consider.
First, as a mediator, Moon should make his best effort to bridge the gap in the different understanding of denuclearization by the United States and North Korea. From the inter-Korean summit, Moon and Kim agreed to realize “complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” However, there has been no clear indication of whether North Korea understood a Korean Peninsula without nuclear as a complete (or permanent), verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement in North Korea. Even after the second meeting with Kim Jong-un, President Moon said that bridging the gap is what the US and North Korea should do.
North Korea has identified US strategic assets in South Korea as proof of preparation of nuclear war. So, it is reasonable to believe that denuclearization meant by North Korea could be a bilateral and conditional process. Unsurprisingly, North Korea argued that the US’ demand for unilateral denuclearization is unacceptable while Trump doubted whether Moon delivered clear messages between the US and North Korea. As observed, a summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un would not take place without shortening the gap in their understanding of denuclearization. Therefore, President Moon needs to play a more active role in bridging that gap instead of leaving that burden to President Trump.
Second, it is necessary for President Moon to have candid discussions with President Trump on to what extent concession can be made to the roles and activities of the US-ROK alliance in exchange for North Korea’s denuclearization. While President Trump offered an economic package for North Korea, there is a possibility that North Korea would demand a reduced American role in protecting South Korea against them since they have insisted that reunification and denuclearization are traditional security issues.
The Panmunjeom declaration of this year states that the actions “initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula …” By admitting North Korea’s willingness to close their nuclear testing sites as a “very meaningful” measure, it created a ground on which North Korea can demand something greater than what two allies expected. Therefore, it is better for President Moon and President Trump to establish consensus on minimum and maximum limits for concessions to the US role on the Korean Peninsula. Otherwise, President Trump could be put into a situation in which he must achieve both denuclearization of North Korea and keeping the primary role of alliance intact which is presumably unacceptable to North Korea.
Third, Moon should seek a more empirical approach in persuading President Trump. President Trump once tweeted, “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now?” Meanwhile, President Moon said, “I don’t think there will be positive developments in history if we just assume that because it all failed in the past, it will fail again.” This indicates that the sources of wisdom of two leaders are different. President Trump relies on practice and experience while President Moon pursues ideals and hope.
When Moon visited the US, President Trump asked President Moon’s opinion about the impact of Kim Jung-un’s second visit to China on the recent change in North Korean attitude. President Moon did not address President Trump’s question but only said that he hopes that a summit between the US and North Korea would go well. If President Moon does not provide with clear evidence that North Korea is sincere about denuclearizing themselves, President Trump would not run on risk of signing a “defective” deal with North Korea given his withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal. Even at the press conference after the second meeting with Kim Jong-un, Moon was asked if he could provide any evidence of what Kim Jong-un said about denuclearization but did not answer it as he thought it was unnecessary.
As President Moon said, it is difficult to make progress in history without any hope. However, if a policy is based solely on emotional elements, it could entail certain ambiguity and rendered wishful thinking. Rather than wishing a summit between the US and North Korea to be a panacea for peace in the Korean Peninsula, there must be practical efforts to address details and concerns posed by peoples who rely on practice and experience in order to lead the presumed summit between the US and North Korea to a better outcome.
Kim Hyuk is a non-resident research fellow of the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies. — Ed.