An uncertain month
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and China’s President Xi Jinping held a secret summit in Beijing on March 27, Maeng Kyong-il, deputy director of the United Front Department (UFD) of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, was in Shanghai. He directly reports to UFD Chief Kim Yong-chol, who is leading the North-U.S. summit. During the PyongChang Winter Olympics, he stayed in Seoul and was a channel of communication to South Korea and the United States.
While the attention of the world was on Beijing, Maeng had a meeting with the United States, not China, in Shanghai. He contacted CIA officials there. While this did not garner as much attention as the Kim-Xi summit, the meeting was actually a more significant secret contact. At that time, a visit to Pyongyang by CIA director Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state, was decided. Four days later, Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang on a CIA chartered flight and spent 10 hours there. The 10 hours was a historic time to determine the future of the Korean Peninsula for the next decade, or even the next century.
After Kim and Pompeo met in Pyongyang, behind-the-scenes negotiations proceeded speedily. Things were going smoothly as well. When North Korea expressed concerns about Kim Jong-un’s personal safety, Trump mentioned that five sites were considered for the summit. While working-level officials narrowed them down to two locations, he set up a smokescreen. The summit was tentatively decided for late May, but Trump intentionally mentioned May, early June and mid-June to create confusion. Trump said that Kim has been “open” and “honorable.” That was a drastic change in rhetoric. Kim also told President Moon Jae-in that he would get along with Trump.
As I watched the live coverage on television, the first thing that came to my mind is that Kim and Trump are quite alike. They are chatty, wordy and tend to jump to various topics. They are also ostentatious. The U.S. intelligence authorities are already studying Kim’s language, tone and body language. There are rumors that a transcript of the 30-minute conversation on the bench during the 44-minute walk in Panmunjom already came out after lip readers were put to work.
We need to be wary of an impulsive agreement between two leaders with such similar personalities. It is realistically impossible to reach an agreement that contains each step of the denuclearization process, which is bound to be complicated and take time. But the upcoming Trump-Kim summit is a meeting that must not fail. In this situation, it would be a nightmare for Seoul if Pyongyang and Washington make a big deal of loosely addressing denuclearization only enough to declare “victory” and agree on disabling intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and guaranteeing the North Korean system.
Trump is advocating a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of the North’s nuclear weapons. However, we cannot take that professed goal at face value. We have seen that Trump is a person willing to make an agreement for something less than complete denuclearization for his political success and a Nobel prize. Trump wants to scrap the Iran nuclear deal because it does not include a ban on ballistic missiles. Anything can happen. The United States allows India, Israel and Pakistan nuclear weapons as they don’t have ICBMs.
Kim Jong-un would target this point. That’s why we need to wake up from the dream of peace and the moving moments of the inter-Korean summit and stay alert. Trump and Kim are similar characters. While I welcome the rapid developments since Pompeo’s Pyongyang visit, May is an uncertain month.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 2, Page 30