An opportunity and a riskHistoric momentum has been made with U.S. President Donald Trump agreeing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by May. A dramatic week with Chung Eui-yong, head of the National Security Office, and a team of presidential envoys dining with Kim in Pyongyang and returning home with an announcement of an inter-Korean summit ended with an even more surprising turn after Trump promptly accepting Kim’s proposal of meeting in person as soon as possible. With the first-ever summit between Pyongyang and Washington on the horizon, the denuclearization of North Korea has never become so possible. Once North Korea’s nuclear threat is removed, peace can finally come to a land divided since the 1950-1953 Korean War. A watershed moment has arrived.
The news is an extraordinary turnaround from last year when war-like tensions escalated with Kim and Trump exchanging violent and slanderous rhetoric. Washington has been floating the idea of a military option until very recently after North Korea carried out tests of nuclear devices and inter-continental ballistic missiles alleged to have the capacity to target any part of the U.S. mainland. North Korea threatened it could fire a missile near Guam and Trump and his hawkish aides reportedly have been studying a restricted strike to give a “bloody nose” to the North Korean leader and military.
The dramatic turn owes much to President Moon Jae-in keeping his word that he would retake the steering wheel in Korean affairs. The government invited North Koreans to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and Kim sent his sister as well as nominal state head Kim Yong-nam to the opening ceremony. A presidential envoy made a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang and brought about the stunning breakthrough. Trump personally arranged that the Korean envoys would make the announcement outside the White House — a demonstration of Seoul being in the driver’s seat.
But a hard journey is ahead. A summit between Pyongyang and Washington can lead to crisis as well as opportunity. Guaranteeing the regime’s security in return for denuclearization could be complicated. The United States may have to remove strategic assets, including the nuclear umbrella, and even pull out soldiers from South Korea. A peace treaty between Pyongyang and Washington is also an end to the security alliance between Seoul and Washington. If North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are not completely and irreversibly dismantled, South Korea can come under a grave security danger. Unexpected bumps are to be expected.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 10, Page 26.