The leaders of North and South Korea have met, shaken hands, taken symbolic yet hugely consequential steps across into each other’s territory, talked about possible pathways to peace on the peninsula, issued a joint communique, and returned home well satisfied with the breakneck speed of progress thus far. Who deserves the most credit for this outbreak of goodwill induced by the spring of summits?
For U.S. President Donald Trump, an admirer is never further away than a mirror. He is fully convinced of his own negotiating genius and not short of sycophants ready to praise his policy of maximum pressure for putting Pyongyang on the path to denuclearization. The danger of believing his own hype is it might lead him to terminate the Iran nuclear deal, which in turn could end the Korean spring.
Unilateral sanctions by themselves rarely change the behaviour of target regimes. Rather, it is the mixed strategy of inducements for good behaviour alongside punishment for noncompliance that shifts regimes under international pressure.
The historical pattern shows North Korean restraint is associated with periods of engagement, and provocations are more frequent when it is threatened.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been careful always to credit Trump’s policy of maximum pressure while himself pursuing the dual-track policy of engagement-cum-coercion. His aggressive diplomacy has been the circuit-breaker in the escalating spiral of threats and counter-threats by the two equally belligerent and volatile leaders of North Korea and the U.S. Moon promised in his inauguration speech to “do everything I can to build peace on the Korean peninsula”. He has restored the Sunshine Policy of Presidents Kim Dae-jung (1999-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008); Moon served in the latter administration as chief of staff.
In the weeks leading to and during the planned Trump-Kim summit in May or June, four issues are likely to be prominent. The least problematic should be converting the armistice agreement of 1953 into a peace settlement. This is in all parties’ interest and regardless of progress on other issues, it is a low hanging fruit that should be picked.
The remaining three however could prove a trap for Trump. “Denuclearization” denotes different things to the two sides. For Washington it means the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, requiring Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal and accept a complete dismantlement of his bomb making infrastructure and materials. But to Pyongyang “denuclearization” has meant a complete and permanent denuclearization of the entire peninsula and an end to U.S. extended nuclear deterrence.
Similarly, “security” and freedom from threat for North Korea means a guarantee that the U.S. will not invade, attack or try to topple the Kim regime; a withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Korea; an end to the U.S. alliance with South Korea and Japan; and an end to criticisms of its human rights record. But for the allies it means an end to the North’s relentless serial provocations and attacks. For Japan it also means a resolution of the issue of abductees.
It is hard to see why Pyongyang would put faith in promises and paper guarantees, no matter how many parties sign up as guarantors. As well as the violation of the Budapest Memorandum by Russia in invading Ukraine in 2014, Kim has good reason to doubt the credibility of U.S. promises. Harvard University’s Stephen Walt documented recently why its “record of reneging on promises and commitments”, even before “Deceitful Donald” became president, means America cannot be trusted.
Nuclear weapons are Kim’s only sure guarantee of personal and regime survival. He is only too aware of the fates of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Nuclear weapons have earned Kim a summit with Trump as an equal; abandoning the quest brought an undignified early death to Gadhafi and renewed threats against Iran. Therefore security to Kim might mean an agreement to freeze his nuclear and missile capabilities at existing levels in order to avoid U.S. pre-emptive military strikes, but retaining those capabilities in order to deter punitive U.S. strikes.
The third possible zone of ambiguity is a common understanding of what North Korea means by a suspension of nuclear tests, possibly prompted by a collapse of its testing site. Pyongyang has previously insisted that satellite launches do not count as missile launches and sometimes refers to its missiles as rockets. The language that Pyongyang “understands” why U.S.-South Korea military exercises cannot be suspended but expects “adjustments” as the situation on the peninsula stabilizes is similarly ambiguous.
Chinese nuclear analyst Tong Zhao has highlighted the asymmetric nature of the commitments required from the different sides in Korea. The U.S. and its partners will be required to provide economic and energy assistance, agree not to attack North Korea, and promise to establish a peace regime on the peninsula. All three components can be suspended and abandoned anytime in the future on presidential whim, just as Trump has guiltlessly reversed several Obama commitments. By contrast, a complete and verified denuclearization by North Korea will not be easily reversible. “Implementation of such grand bargains, therefore, requires a high level of confidence and trust from North Korea toward the other parties to be maintained throughout the denuclearization process and afterward,” Zhao concludes.
The Kim-Trump summit thus has the built-in risk that if either side concludes the other is negotiating in bad faith, the situation could quickly deteriorate and Washington could feel justified in launching a preventive military strike to decapitate North Korea’s nuclear program. Indeed John Bolton, before taking office as the U.S. national security adviser, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 28 that pre-emptive attacks on North Korea would be legally justified and said in an interview on Fox News on March 9 that the primary purpose of the summit is to prove the futility of negotiations with North Korea as a catalyst for military action.
The belief that the summit will produce a definitive resolution rests on irrational exuberance. It is better to recalibrate expectations to more realistic outcomes. All sides must show flexibility and accommodation and approach the summit as the start of a serous process of dialogue leading to an eventual diplomatic resolution that averts a war but stops North Korea from acquiring an intercontinental nuclear capability.