Taking the driver’s seat
*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas in Panmunjom last week was a surprise event that was clearly different from previous contact between Seoul and Pyongyang. No one imagined that such a meeting was possible. A summit always requires perfect preparation, and there is always insecurity about protection of the president. The latest meeting showed that the two leaders have built up trust in each other to overcome such worries.
The conditions were, in fact, perfect for such a meeting. The two leaders do not need interpreters. They live close to each other. Panmunjom is about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Seoul and 150 kilometers from Pyongyang. Taking into account the poor road conditions of the North, it is just a half-day trip.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in the face of U.S. opposition, would have wanted to use the South as leverage. Still, it can be a new channel between the two Koreas. As President Moon Jae-in said, the two leaders can have talks “as a part of their lives, just like friends do.”
Not everything is smooth, though. The U.S.-North summit descended into crisis. What should Moon do to be a better matchmaker? Despite Moon’s quick efforts, misunderstandings run deep between the two countries. Does the United States trust South Korea enough? Moon said the content of his summit with Kim at the Tongilgak was delivered to the United States. He, however, did not have a phone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump. He also did not say whether he consulted with the United States before the latest inter-Korean meeting.
It is also a surprise that the latest U.S.-South Korea summit ended after 21 minutes. Moon visited Washington with the outcomes of the inter-Korean summit. Trump, who was scheduled to meet with Kim, must have had many questions. Furthermore, Moon and Kim had a secret dialogue for 30 minutes at the foot bridge of the Panmunjom. If Trump had planned to suspend the upcoming summit plan with Kim, he must have wanted to know Moon’s opinions.
It is also questionable why Trump said during the joint press conference that he did not need interpretation of Moon’s remarks. The Blue House explained that Trump said so because he knew Moon was going to say “something nice.” If that is true, don’t Moon’s remarks deserve to be delivered to American reporters? Some media think Trump said he did not need interpretation because he had already heard it before. It that is true, the situation is even more serious.
It was confirmed that The New York Times report was not true that Trump asked Moon why the North Korean statement and what Moon told him were different. But Pyongyang and Washington are now arguing that their summit was first proposed by one another and Trump’s dissatisfaction toward the North is growing. As we observe the process, things don’t feel clear. At least, there are some circumstantial suspicions.
The North is also acting strangely. It called off high-level inter-Korean talks abruptly and delayed Korean reporters’ visit to the shutdown of its nuclear site. It is doubtful that the North would have proposed the Tongilgak summit so abruptly if its relations with the United States remained smooth.
The Korea-U.S. joint military drills were prearranged. And yet, why did inter-Korean relations not suddenly grind to a halt? It is not the South Korean government’s responsibility that the United States and the North act unpredictably. But if agreements can be overturned after only a few days, it is a problem.
Most of all, Moon must show a more transparent position. Diplomatic rhetoric can be beautiful, indirect and use metaphors. But a message must be clear because it can cause a misunderstanding when delivered ambiguously. When expectations are high, disappointments can be big. A serious crisis can be triggered.
When you are buying a house, a real estate agent often says “the price is cheap” and “the owner is a good person.” But they are all unnecessary details. The most crucial thing for the deal is the price I want to pay.
During his press conference on Sunday, Moon said “Kim once again made clear his intention for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Asked by a foreign reporter if Kim meant the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” Moon gave an indirect answer by saying that “Didn’t the United States confirm such an intention of the North when they agreed to the summit?” Moon’s position is unclear. It is unclear what the North actually said.
What the North has said so far refers to a “nuclear freeze.” There is no mention that can connect that to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. In the Panmunjom Declaration, it was stated that a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula will be realized through complete denuclearization. A nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is a term the North uses for the nuclear disarmament of the North and the United States. Punggye-ri is also a facility that was linked to additional nuclear tests.
North Korean Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan’s statement, evaluated by Trump as “warm and productive,” talked about “solving even one at a time in a phased way.” He also said the North “even inwardly hoped” that the “Trump formula” would be a “wise way of substantial effect for settling the issue,” hinting that the North was waiting the United States to offer what they wanted. It does not mean that the North will accept U.S. demands.
Moon must set his goal clearly. Is it an agreement or stopping a war? Is it a complete denuclearization or a freeze? A contract must be written clearly. An ambiguous contract can be a reason to scrap it.
If expectations are raised without a clear goal, we will face a whole new level of disagreement.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 28, Page 31