Change is in the airA few weeks from now, the leaders of the two Koreas will be sitting across from one another. It will be the first time for the leaders of the two Koreas to discuss denuclearization. Next week, South Korean singers will perform on a stage in Pyongyang. If Psy joins the troupe, we may witness a surreal scene of horse-dancing in the streets of Pyongyang to the tune of “Gangnam Style.” Such a sight was beyond our imagination only a few months ago.
Once the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Paralympics closed and the delayed joint military exercises of South Korea and the United States resumed, North Korea was expected to renew nuclear and missile provocations. U.S. President Donald Trump could have been tempted to deliver a “bloody nose” strike on the North Korean leadership, triggering a full-fledged war on the Korean Peninsula. That was not at all implausible a couple of months ago.
But a dramatic truce between the two Koreas with North Korea’s last-minute participation in the Olympics brought a new wave of optimism to the region. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un suddenly understood the need for the regular joint military drills and suspended nuclear and missile tests to discuss denuclearization through summit talks with both South Korea and the United States. Sometimes, reality can surpass the imagination.
Last week, I attended the Northeast Regional Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network in Seoul. Members from South Korea, China, Japan and Mongolia discussed nuclear nonproliferation and arms reduction. Unsurprisingly, North Korean issues were a dominant topic. Participants praised the Moon Jae-in administration’s diplomatic skills during the Winter Games to provide a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. But most also advised caution in the face of over-optimism.
What Washington demands from Pyongyang is a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. Most doubt that can be achieved. Since the 1980s, over 6,000 unusual seismic activities have been reported from North Korea. They are believed to have been caused by explosions in underground tunnels. If weapons are hidden underground, inspectors are not able to investigate them. There are many factories and military sites believed to be related to the nuclear and missile programs. It would be impossible for inspectors to locate every one of them. Even if Trump and Kim Jong-un reach an agreement on denuclearization, the verification process could be very tricky.
Trump’s threat to call off a nuclear deal with Iran also casts doubts on successful talks with North Korea. Trump vowed not to re-endorse lifting of sanctions on the Middle Eastern country if the European Union does not fix problems in the agreement by May 12. The likelihood of the United States nixing the deal grew after Trump replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster with hawkish figures Mike Pompeo, former CIA director, and John Bolton, former U.N. ambassador, both of whom opposed the deal with Iran. If Trump walks out of the Iranian deal, Kim Jong-un could wonder why he should be serious about denuclearization. He could hide nuclear weapons as hedges against the risk of the United States changing its mind in the future.
Washington is innately distrustful of Pyongyang. To demonstrate that it won’t tolerate any cheating, it could demand rigorous and aggressive inspections. The two sides could clash over the inspection and verification methods and end up going different ways. The two sides will be walking into the game highly suspicious of one another. Yet the miraculous momentum must not be wasted. We should go as far as possible.
The inter-Korean summit, therefore, should set the tone. Moon must demonstrate his sincere and frank mediating skills and help ease the distrustful mood between Pyongyang and Washington. The summit meeting should reflect Kim’s will to denuclearize in a joint statement. The two leaders must come up with a common goal and vision of the future in the aftermath of denuclearization. North Korea should be promised economic prosperity and regime security if it completely abandons its nuclear weapons, opens up and starts to reform like Vietnam. Moon must set the stage for the summit talks between Kim and Trump by building confidence in an ultimate settlement of the North Korean nuclear problem.
When change is in the air, mutual confidence can be built. The two Koreas, as well as the United States, all have reasons to go further than in the past. North Korea wants to defend its regime. South Korea wants to prevent a war. The United States wants to remove the threat of a nuclear-tipped missile flying into its territory. Once trust is built, the changes can be lasting. If the two Koreas and the United States are sincere, permanent peace may not be an impossible dream.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 27, Page 31
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.