Don’t jinx them
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“Can’t put enough lipstick on this pig to make it look good,” Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, commented on the latest denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington. After State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s third visit to Pyongyang, the U.S. media and experts criticized the disappointing outcome, but Cha’s comment is a whole new level of condemnation. Cha was nominated as U.S. ambassador to Korea by the Trump administration and won the Korean government’s agreement, but his nomination was canceled for an unspecified reason. Even he is withering about a negotiation that has just begun.
Of course, it was shocking that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not meet Pompeo during his last visit to Pyongyang. Instead, Kim visited a food factory in Samjiyon near Mt. Paektu. After Pompeo said the talks were productive and they had shown progress, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a statement to complain about “a unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization,” prompting the U.S. media to explode. That triggered Pompeo to say, “If I paid attention to what the press said, I’d go nuts.”
There is a reasonable doubt in Washington about Kim’s pledge of denuclearization. After Kim’s three summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping and an escalating trade war between the United States and China, Beijing’s sanctions on North Korea have been effectively loosened. As cooperation between the United States and China — the key players in international sanctions on North Korea — was shaken, denuclearization pressures were weakened.
Although Kim’s second letter to Trump included flowery language such as six references to “Your Excellency,” there was not a single mention of denuclearization. It was no wonder that President Moon Jae-in asked Pyongyang to present more specific plans for denuclearization.
CNN commented that North Korea poured cold water on the talks. What is the North’s true intention and why is Kim showing such a passive attitude? The answer can be found in the difference in the North’s calculation from that of the United States.
The United States demanded North Korea take tangible actions toward denuclearization. But Pyongyang stresses that the joint declaration from the June 12 North-U.S. summit in Singapore puts the priority on the establishment of new North-U.S. relations. Its second priority is on establishing a permanent peace regimen on the Korean Peninsula, while the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula comes third and the repatriation of the remains of fallen U.S. soldiers from the Korean War comes fourth. North Korea wants a declaration to end the war — an interim security assurance — before the denuclearization.
North Korea does not accept the U.S. demands that it start the denuclearization process now that joint military drills are suspended. The North says it stopped nuclear tests and missile tests for eight months and the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri was destroyed. Therefore, it argues, the United States cannot make any further demand in return for the suspension of joint drills, which can resume at any time.
And yet, Kim still claims he wants to give up nuclear weapons and build a country that will grow like China and Vietnam. This must be his true intention, but the North Korean military seems reluctant to give up nuclear weapons, which it completed over a long period of time and with plenty of sacrifice. Therefore, we must help the dove in the North establish a more solid foothold. If necessary, more big deals with Kim need to be pushed forward. Attention should be paid to the North’s demands while persuading it to stay on the denuclearization track.
Kim also must make a decision. Now is his last chance. He should complete denuclearization in return for security assurances and develop his impoverished country. South Korea and the United States are societies controlled by public opinion. If the early steps of denuclearization are delayed, Moon and Trump may not be able to endure the public pressure. Trump, who will face a midterm election in November, is particularly sensitive.
North Korea, one of the world’s poorest nations, must become a normal country. International cooperation — U.S. support in particular — is crucial. Vietnam kicked off the Doi Moi reforms in 1986, but the economy was revived only after it normalized diplomatic ties with the United States in 1995. This is exactly why the reclusive North Korean state must not miss its opportunity.
Denuclearization is a boring process that requires a long time. It’s been only a month since Kim and Trump met and made public their political agreement. Only one follow-up negotiation took place. It is a natural step in a deal to present the highest bid to study the opponent’s intention. Although there will be some difficult processes down the road, the price will be lowered as time goes by.
It is better to keep the negotiation going as long as there is a glimmer of hope, than to declare a breakdown of the talks without actually trying. This would only lead us back to confrontation. Most of all, the two leaders of the United States and North Korea are leading the negotiations based on mutual trust. North Korea can hardly give up its nuclear weapons on its own will and efforts alone. Last weekend, Trump said he wanted to see peace on the peninsula, adding that we are coming out of a decades-old war. In these crucial stages, we should not demonize North Korea. It is not the time to put a jinx on denuclearization talks by comparing them to putting lipstick on a pig.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 16, Page 31