MACK WILLIAMS. Korea : After Panmunjeom

May 4, 2018

Much has been written about the recent Kim:Moon Summit and its communique. The signs on the interKorean front are encouraging but all still hinges on how the Kim:Trump Summit. It will have to address the absolutely critical issue of “denuclearisation” – what it actually means and how could it be achieved. There is still  far to go and the challenge for Trump is to find a way short of Armageddon that will really so diminish the North’s nuclear and ICBM capability that he can claim a victory.  

The world was rivetted by the imagery from last weekend’s interKorean Summit. Now that the hoop-la is over what does it all mean for the future of the Korean peninsula and the region and world? Not surprisingly, the Panmunjeom Communique acknowledges the “common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula” but talks of carrying out disarmament on the peninsula “in a phased manner”. This is in marked contrast to the repeated demands from President Trump that the North’s denuclearisation must be complete and irreversible with the full set of sanctions in place until that has been achieved. We are now witnessing the opening shots in the public battle between the two leaders on this fundamental issue. Who will blink first and by how much remains to be seen and Trump’s decision whether to proceed with the next Summit probably hangs on it. To agree to the meeting without even a glimpse of some compromise acceptable to him and thus genuinely risk him staging a walk out has to weigh heavily on Trump. All the more as the hype about a possible Nobel Peace Prize ( cleverly fed by President Moon) will be so attractive to him!

All that said, dismissive views by some in the commentariat about the importance of the symbolism of the Ki:Moon Summit reveal little understanding of the Koreas – steeped in history and probably the most monocultural societies in the world. For Koreans on both sides, the Communique sets out an impressive list of interKorean projects designed to lower military tensions and promote greater reconciliation. Some are not new but the spirit in which they have been announced is encouraging. That the Communique and the TV coverage of the Summit were seen by North Koreans on this occasion have added to the momentum emerging on both sides. Of course, progress in these areas could be so easily set back if the Kim:Trump Summit fails.

Trump has every right to boast that he has been able to achieve so much more on the Korean issue than previous Presidents and importantly “adminstrations”. His deal making approach with both China and the DPRK, which many derided, has got us this far. As I reported very early on, the hand of Kissinger, whom Trump has consulted, has played a role in Trump’s thinking. Kissinger would have argued strongly for the critical importasnce of first building a solid personal base with President Xi – both for US:China relations but also for the North Korean problem. This brings back memories of my time in Washington in contact with the National Security Council when Kissinger took the initiative to open direct channels with the Chinese and organise  Nixon’s historic visit to China – when the McMahon government was so badly caught out.

But Trump certainly does not deserve all the credit. As Trump himself concedes, President Xi has played a key intermediary role in preparing the ground for the coming summit. While we probably will never know the full story , stringent economic sanctions and the heightened threat of military confrontation clearly have weighed heavily on Kim Jong-un’s decision to change tack but Trump (influenced by Xi and Putin) has also made concessions which have broken the previous logjam in which successive US administrations steadfastly opposed direct talks with the DPRK without water-tight guarantees of commitment to immediate denuclearisation. The scene was also coloured by DPRK’s all too well known track record on reneging of commitments – although they were not alone as the US had also walked away from several commitments ( such as the KEDO light water reactor program whose “ground breaking ceremony I witnessed in North Korea).

Not unexpectedly,Trump continues to maintain that he had not made any concessions as a pre-condition to Kim’s offer of direct talks in their proposed Summit. But under sustained pressure from both China and Russia, Trump eventually deferred until after the Winter Olympics the large annual joint US:ROK military exercises which were  set to be even much extensive this year He has also claimed recently that it was he who agreed to President Moon’s request to allow North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics though Vice President Pence’s demeanour at the Games sought to downplay the North’s presence.

Objectively speaking, one has to acknowledge that whatever the reasons, and irrespective of the successful charm offensive on which he has embarked, Kim has also made important concessions which have lowered significantly tensions on the peninsula. If the current situation is translated into a positive outcome in his talks with Trump Kim will deserve recognition too. Moon has also played a significant role in getting things to where they are. This would hardly have been possible if his predecessor, a hard liner, would still have been in office. He also appears to have carried much of the South Korean public with him but meeting their new expectations will constitute a major challenge for him. Without a seat at the table in the Kim:Trump Summit the ROK can only be anxious about what outcome Trump will propose or accept.

The Australian media has missed or ignored the irony of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister supporting Trump’s boasts about how he has bucked the long term steadfast policy of his predecessors on direct talks with the DPRK . Trump has been prepared to move away from the previous approach which was so heavily influenced by the defence/intelligence interest group  in previous US administrations and the powerful hawks in the Congress. This has not been universally well received in this group though many probably are far from wedded to a military strike either. This is the very same group with which we have become so entangled and which has stultified Australian policy development in recent years.

We have been in lockstep for so long with this hard line US policy towards the DPRK . There have been a number of occasions where Canberra (including under Labor) has been holier than the Pope on DPRK policy. For example, ANU and Sydney universities used to have a few very small but well-placed training programs for North Koreans years ago but that window was shut down.  And some initiatives with which I was involved to open other tiny avenues into the DPRK – especially on education and English teaching were closed .This was even when similar initiatives were under way by others – including some US universities. Always in the interests of Alliance solidarity we were repeatedly told!

For many years there have been responsible voices outside the  US defence/intelligence establishment – and many in the ROK – who have been stigmatised for their doubts about what they saw as the bankruptcy of this policy. Trump basically now has debunked it in favour of “cutting a deal”.Washington has always breathed heavily down the necks of the likes of Kim Dae-Jung and his acolytes over their Sunshine Policy which is pretty much where President Moon ( an acolyte) sits today. A disturbing piece by Peter Jennings in The Australian at the weekend, bemoaning the loss of Admiral Harris as Ambassador to Canberra ridiculously pushes hard for his replacement to be from the defence intelligence area. It just demonstrates the narrow prism through which our so-called strategic experts view the world and Australia’s place in it. Sadly another reflection of the scene Geoff Raby has described in such a telling way in Pearls and Irritations this week

Mack Williams, former Ambassador to the ROK, Royal College of Defence Studies. 

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