The real game has begun
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It’s anyone’s guess how the epic drama between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will end up. But one thing is certain. Donald Trump no longer thinks denuclearization can be packaged in a simple deal, despite all his brave and confident talk about pulling off something that no American leader has been able to achieve. Instead, he now calls it a “process” that requires work over time.
Regardless of the media extravaganza, the real significance of the Singapore meeting lies in what happens afterward. Washington and Pyongyang must wrestle through the details, means and timetable of the denuclearization procedures. North Koreans are known to have a knack for wearing down their opponents. They have used the trick many times before — tantalizing and exhausting the international community or the United States until they can blame the other party for a breakdown in the talks.
It is not just North Koreans. Communist states and cells have a long history of guerrilla warfare tactics to tire out and defeat the enemy in battlefields as well as negotiating rooms. For example, the Paris Peace Accords to end the Vietnam War began in 1968. The U.S. delegation booked a hotel for a week, whereas the North Vietnamese politburo team leased out an old palace outside Paris for a year. They declared that they would sit out until the chairs rot. The peace talks finally ended in 1973, after numerous delays.
The North Vietnamese often wasted the negotiations with their outbursts of criticism against U.S. imperialistic outreach. To them, the peace talks were a part of military tactics. The North Koreans are even better at them. The North Korean delegates were experts in exacerbating U.S. counterparts with fiery outbursts or silent torture.
Whether they will be any different this time is yet to be seen. For one, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has already gained more than what he aimed for. His coming-out party could not have been more spectacular, with the eyes of the whole world pinned on the young leader as he stood face-to-face with the world’s most powerful head of state, who even left the Group of 7 summit early to arrive in Singapore a few days before the showdown. Kim can sleep in peace at least for some time. He also grabbed back attention from Beijing and secured its backing despite any additional sanctions against North Korea. For Pyongyang, it does not have any reason to rush to close the chapter on denuclearization.
Pompeo may be assuring Pyongyang that it won’t be Washington that breaks the promise this time. The George W. Bush administration in 2001 killed the agreement his predecessor Bill Clinton had reached with Pyongyang. A deal with North Korea would require two-thirds of the votes in the Senate — the same quorum to pass legislation as significant as constitutional amendments. It is why Washington is doubtful that Trump can easily meet Pyongyang’s demands.
China is another risk to the process. In its latest editorial, China’s state-run newspaper Global Times said that any peace treaty involving the two Koreas and the United States without China’s involvement is invalid and can be overturned. China may play a party pooper if it is unhappy with the future developments on the Korean Peninsula. It can ease up on sanctions, which would give Pyongyang lesser reason to stay committed to the deal with Washington.
The path ahead is filled with land mines. The summit will hardly be a “one-time shot” as Trump famously said. The two leaders might have passed just one of 12 gates to heaven. What is important is not to look back but to persist ahead until the final destination is reached.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 12, Page 30