The pace of developments on the Korean peninsular in the past month or so has been breathtaking matched by the plethora of pundits who have sought to interpret what it all means and where we may be headed. Not surprisingly given the history and geography and the stakeholders involved much of coverage has been confusing and often contradictory. Facts are hard to come by as also has been reliable inside information. But it is all about to kick off with the two Korean leaders holding their summit later this week in the DMZ. So what do we know?
The first thing is to recognise the clear hierarchy of events which will likely occur. The Kim:Moon Summit will be an historic one for both Koreas – not the first but one which has been preceded by a level of cooperation, consultation and calmness between the two virtually unheard of in past decades. Yet both sides will be under no illusion that Moon has to be in lockstep with President Trump and even Kim will have to bear closely in mind the views of President Xi (who will be visiting Pyongyang soon after) – and to a lesser extent of President Putin. Extensive planning has been underway on both sides to prepare the grounds for a positive outcome from this Summit. Moon has committed to raising the “denuclearisation” issue with Kim. Speculation has raged about it leading to some form of a “peace treaty” or the like but this would surely be beyond the bounds of this Summit – if only because the US and China were major signatories to the Korean Armistice agreement – which the ROK never signed!
So what can the two Koreas agree upon ? Moon seems to have been given a green light from Trump to focus on inter-Korean issues like measures to facilitate movement towards more reconciliation between the two such as family reunions, cultural exchanges. Trade would seem to be excluded by the continuation of heavy economic sanctions. An outcome of the Kim:Moon Summit which can be presented publicly as “successful” would prepare the way for the Kim:Trump Summit. Conversely difficulties in the earlier Summit could have serious consequences for the next one or even jeopardise it actually occurring.
The second Summit is much more problematic and still has not been locked in. The new Secretary of State Pompeo, in his previous capacity as CIA Director, has been the point man for Trump in the secret contacts between the US and North Korea over recent months – culminating in his visit to Pyongyang and meeting with Kim in preparation for the Summit. He will be coordinating the US preparations but the depletion of State and other US organisations will have damaged the experience and skills needed to prepare for such an epic meeting.
The crucial factors though continue to be with Trump’s acceptance of expert briefing and how he will perform at the table with Kim. The indications continue to be that Trump will be tempted to treat the meeting as a sort of Reality TV exercise in which he could walk out or spring surprises ( for his team as well). There are already signs of concern among the senior US team that Trump may want to go solo with Kim ( with only interpreters present). There is also worry that Trump will be “beguiled” (as one White House insider has been reported) by how he can emerge from the Summit as a real world leader who can claim to have resolved the threat to world peace – no doubt with eyes on a Nobel Prize !! And that this will tempt him to concede more to Kim than he should at the Summit.
What is known about the negotiating styles of Kim and Trump is that they are quite different. Kim is much more likely to follow a more traditional style of working through the details well in advance so that the actual meeting basically confirms what has been agreed. While Trump boasts of his use of surprise deals at the meeting itself. It would seem that Kim has done his homework on Trump and his style – no doubt with assistance from President Xi and others. His image make-over has been little short of extraordinary – from the poker faced singular figure to the relaxed extrovert he has revealed along with his wife in the past few months. That has had a positive impact in South Korea and elsewhere. He also seems to have decided to lay out publicly in advance the main concessions he is prepared to make – depriving Trump of the opportunity to claim them as concessions he has won at the table. China and Russia are reported to have advised him on this.
The other central issue is to ensure that all the public statements from the North are correctly understood. A detailed assessment by a South Korean academic in Al Jazeera on 23 April argued strongly that the world media had misunderstood the DPRK announcement of the previous day as having committed itself to “denuclearisation”. Quoting at length from the resolution he points out that the decision was to stop nuclear testing and close down a test site. This had been a pre-condition which he claimed that the Chinese and Russians had set as a precondition for the Summit in their negotiations with the US. There was no commitment to the treatment of fissile materials or nuclear warheads or the facilities for their production. Which all goes to show how critical defining “denuclearisation” will be in the Summit.
Throughout all this summitry a major challenge will be to maintain the relationship between the ROK and US. South Koreans have lived with the imminent threat of war for well over 60 years with almost all men having undergone two years of serious military training. Attitudes towards North Korea are a complex mix of fraternal empathy, tough response to North Korean military threat and a very strong scepticism about the North’s leadership. It is probably too early to assess whether the recent charm offensive by Kim and the North has affected those views but the tantalising glimpse of the removal of the military threat from the North may well be morphing into a growing attraction among younger generations, for a “no war” option. This could complicate Moon’s dealings with Trump.
A nightmare scenario for the ROK has long been that its interests would get sidelined by the US in any deterioration of the Sino/US bilateral relationship – such as over Taiwan. Later it developed into a concern at not being at the top table for US/DPRK direct negotiations. The Six Party Talks were designed to assuage those fears. The Kim:Trump Summit is bound to worry many in the ROK that their interests will be downplayed by any concessions Trump makes to Kim so that he can present himself as a leader on the world stage. These concerns were exacerbated a few weeks ago when Trump decided at the last moment to shelve signature of a revised FTA with the ROK so, as he described it, he could later use his signature as a lever against the ROK!!
Today’s news of the switch of former PACOM chief Admiral Harris from being Ambassador in Canberra to Ambassador in Seoul is likely to be received with some mixed blessings in the ROK. That the US has been without an Ambassador in the ROK for so long and then had an extremely qualified Korean American nominee suddenly withdrawn by Trump because of his views about how to deal with North Korea had already been poorly received in the ROK. To parachute in Admiral Harris on the recommendation of the brand new Secretary of State Pompeo – both hardliners on Korea – was clearly in panic about the need to have an Ambassador in Seoul . The Government newsagency Yonhap has only reported the news deadpan so far. But it raises a number of questions for South Koreans
. Will Harris be able physically to arrive before the Kim:Trump Summit – given that Harris had taken months to await Senate hearings over his Canberra appointment ?
. At this critical juncture could the US not have found someone with a better and more rounded knowledge of the Korean scene ? In Congressional hearings a month ago Harris took a very public hard-line on North Korea going further than the now usual US assessment that Kim’s main objective was to protect his regime.
. Going back to MacArthur and then the long years of military rule the ROK has had a history of difficulties with US generals. Will Harris expect to play a vice-regal role in Seoul?
. Why choose a Japanese American as Ambassador in the ROK of all countries – as anti- Japanese feelings still remain strong in both Koreas?
Mack Williams, is a former Ambassador to the ROK, Royal College of Defence Studies