Thinking the unthinkable

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Thinking the unthinkable

The Korean Peninsula is moving towards an inflection point at a dizzying pace. The speed is worrisome, but the direction of developments raises hope. The inflection point would reach its peak when an inter-Korean summit takes place in late April and followed by the first-ever meeting between North Korean and U.S. leaders. Depending on the outcomes, the relationship between the two Koreas — and between Cold War enemies North Korea and the United States — could undergo a sea change. We must be clear-headed. We must not become too optimistic or pessimistic.

The Moon Jae-in administration deserves high marks for diplomacy by building momentum through the PyeongChang Olympics truce. It demonstrated creative and nimble diplomatic abilities. With a goodwill gesture, it paved the way for inter-Korean as well as Pyongyang-Washington dialogues. Moon deserves praise for his persistence on wresting back the steering wheel on Korean affairs and for an unwavering and calm engagement policy despite headwinds from home and abroad.

Moon gave a red-carpet treatment to North Korean officials who came to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics despite public carping that he was kowtowing to a war-threatening neighbor. He pressed ahead with the sudden decision of including North Koreans in the South Korean female ice hockey team even as that idea enraged a key voting base — voters under the age of 40. He allowed Kim Yong-chol — a senior North Korean figure with sanctions from Seoul for masterminding attacks on the South Korean warship Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 and sanctions from Washington for his role in the cyberattack on Sony Pictures in 2014 — to the Olympics closing ceremony despite protests from conservatives. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in return, personally hosted a dinner for Moon’s special envoys. Moon also won over his hot-tempered U.S. counterpart Donald Trump by giving him credit for developments in inter-Korean relations. No one dislikes compliments. We have seen clean and smart diplomacy from Seoul for a change.

It has been reassuring to learn that Moon has a talented foreign affairs and security team. He recruited veterans Chung Eui-yong as the head of the National Security Office and Suh Hoon as the chief of the National Intelligence Service and has given them authority. With such backing from the president, they were able to fully demonstrate their wisdom and capabilities. The duo drew Trump’s prompt acceptance to Kim Jong-un’s proposal for a summit and toured Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow to gain support from global powers for the developments involving Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-un also deserves credit. If he had not made the gambit of expressing an intention to improve ties with Seoul and send North Korean participants to the PyeongChang Games in his New Year’s address, we may not have seen this day. Trump’s push for “maximum pressure” also helped stop nuclear and missile provocations and seems to have made Kim conciliatory. Trump’s bold and dramatic change of mind to put his faith in Kim and his claim of being willing to talk about denuclearization — although relayed by South Korean envoys — also helped lead to the watershed turnaround. Luck was on Moon’s side on top of government efforts and capabilities.

Whether the developments will culminate in something meaningful or end up as much ado about nothing lies in Kim’s determination on denuclearization. Many have been doubtful that Kim will give up his cherished nuclear weapons easily. I have been one of them. Kim must have thought nuclear weapons are the only protection for him and his family-run regime after having seen the tragic end of other dictators. But his latest moves have shaken my conviction. I am beginning to think he may really be serious about dispensing with nuclear arms and having dialogue with Seoul and Washington. Otherwise, how can he dare propose a one-on-one meeting with the head of the world’s most powerful state?

As a coming-out party for a young ruler of the world’s most secluded nation, one can’t imagine a more stunning optic than standing next to the leader of the United States. But at the same time, Kim is playing a very high-stakes game. If the summit does not produce constructive results, the backfire could be on Kim. He could exact “fire and fury” from Trump if Washington learns it has been duped or cheated once again. Kim could be fatally doomed like Middle East strongmen Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. He is not that foolish. He would not have offered to bargain with Trump unless he is willing to yield nuclear arms to hopefully make North Korea a normal state. To join the international community, Pyongyang must open up and reform. He may have reached the decision upon studying all the factors including the substantial political risks.

Trump also cannot take the summit lightly. He conceded to talking with Kim without full coordination by his team after long maintaining that dialogue with North Korea is a waste of time. Trump is now confident of a “tremendous success” in upcoming talks. He must be sure to make it so as a failure can be big trouble for both Trump and Kim.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 13, Page 31

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Bae Myung-bok
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