Choosing your allies carefully
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Key officials in the Blue House have been praying for U.S. President Donald Trump. They credit Trump for the dramatic change of course in the Korean Peninsula towards peace, but they dread a possible turnaround should anything happen to Trump.
Famous pastors Paula White and Franklin Graham were asked to speak positive words to Trump about the prospect of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. President Moon Jae-in was reportedly worried to see Trump look tired upon arrival in Singapore after a 21-hour flight. He hoped nothing would ruin the hard-won momentum of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
However, Trump does not have much backing in Washington. Congress, think tanks and the media have all been critical of the results of his meeting with Kim in Singapore. They complained that Trump did not go near any assurance about complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID), despite his previous tough words, and that the self-dubbed “master of the deal” has conceded to the greenhorn on the international stage.
Kim earned confidence from the towering U.S. president just by flagging a vague promise to denuclearize while leaving out details on how and when. Three weeks have passed since the historic summit on Sentosa Island, Singapore. South Korea and the United States have called off their annual military exercises, but nothing so far has been heard from Pyongyang on its progress in denuclearization. North Korea may have fooled the United States once again.
Sanctions also have turned shaky. After cozy exchanges of envoys in Pyongyang and three meetings between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing and Moscow have demanded easing in the United Nations-led sanctions. The United States has resisted any softening in the sanctions on North Korea while extending unilateral sanctions for another year. Real estate prices around the border between North Korea and China have jumped amid expectations for eased sanctions by China. Some reports say North Korea has increased production of nuclear fuel in multiple secret locations. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is preparing for his third visit to Pyongyang this week, but whether he will return with concrete actions toward denuclearization is unclear.
Kim has so far been portrayed a sure winner from negotiations. He stood side by side with the leader of a world superpower and received the same spotlight without yielding much. Trump, in a desperate move to score points with voters ahead of the midterm elections in November, was defeated by Kim. North Korea may stall for time to eventually win the recognition as nuclear weapons state like India and Pakistan.
But cheats won’t get any normalization of ties or economic aid from the United States. The United States does not work under a single leadership, but under a multilayered structure of the legislature, think tanks and the media. North Korea must convince them as much as Trump by earning their trust through its sincerity.
There is some hope left yet. During his three visits to China, Kim toured top schools and the infrastructure there — Zhongguancun, the Chinese equivalent of Silicon Valley, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the rail transportation command center in Beijing. During his third visit to Beijing, he was accompanied by North Korean Cabinet Premier Pak Pong-ju and Pak Thae-song, the ruling Workers’ Party vice chairman for science and education. This suggests Kim Jong-un’s priority in the economy.
Making friends with America through complete denuclearization is a better choice for North Korea than teaming up with China and Russia without denuclearization. Vietnam’s opening and reform campaign only picked up after it normalized ties with the United States, which brought in funding from international lenders like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Im Jong-seok, President Moon’s chief of staff ahead of the April 27 inter-Korean summit, quoted Egon Bahr, who laid the groundwork for German reunification through “Ostpolitik,” or détente towards the communist East, and said that it is almost impossible to have major change in direction in diplomacy and politics without first gaining the patience and consent of the United States. North Korea must remember Im’s remarks.
Trump gave North Korea its last chance in Singapore. Pompeo previously said Trump and the U.S. team would leave the negotiation table if North Korean delegates do not promise CVID. North Korea has desired a summit with a U.S. leader since the armistice agreement in 1953. Moon arranged it, and Trump willingly accepted the offer. Trump has gone further than previous U.S. presidents by offering to normalize ties upon dismantlement of nuclear weapons. Kim would lose all that if he gambles.
Kim has been lucky to come across Moon and Trump as his contemporaries. He must show a willingness toward complete denuclearization and invite Trump to Pyongyang. The peninsula, for the first time, is on the verge of ending its Cold War-era division and entering peace. If this opportunity is missed, we may never achieve this. Kim must make a wise decision.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 2, Page 31