A matter of time
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The biggest concern for the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the fate of 1,800 nuclear warheads and 171 ballistic missiles that the Soviets left in Ukraine. In response, the U.S. government promised Ukraine economic assistance in exchange for dismantling its nuclear weapons.
First, Washington asked General Motors to acquire Ukraine’s struggling state-owned carmaker Auto Zaz, but GM turned it down. Henry Kissinger then reached out to Daewoo Chairman Kim Woo-choong for help. Ukraine promised not to import used cars from Europe, and Daewoo Motors acquired Zaz for $100 million.
But the Ukrainian parliament rejected the import ban, and the $100 million went to waste. Democratic Party floor leader Hong Young-pyo, who once worked at Daewoo, recalls the experience as one example of the complicated conditions surrounding denuclearization.
The Moon Jae-in administration’s stance is similar, but it has some illusions and made some misjudgments. The government views denuclearization talks as a long journey, and we are only at the entrance. That is correct, but the presumption of an unchanging situation is wrong.
The government assumes that as long as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s will for denuclearization doesn’t change, negotiations will continue, no matter how slow, and U.S. President Donald Trump will continue to trust Kim. But has Kim really changed? I am not sure, but let’s assume so. In such a situation, the Trump variable is still wrong. It cannot last long.
This is not the pessimism of skeptics in Washington. North Korea returned the remains of more U.S. soldiers, but Congress has turned its back on Trump’s denuclearization drive. As the midterms approach, Congress’ offensive will intensify, as well as that of American citizens. It is wishful thinking to expect Trump to endure one or two more years of waiting. Trump’s patience will last until the elections in November at the latest. That means we have about 100 days left.
Sound familiar? If you think that is the joint statement signed by the two leaders at their summit in Singapore, you are wrong. Instead, it was a statement that North Korea issued through its Korean Central News Agency a day before the summit. That language eventually entered the joint statement. The repatriation of remains was simply added as a fourth article.
So what does this mean? From the beginning, re-establishing North Korea-U.S. relations and lifting sanctions were Pyongyang’s priorities. Declaring a formal end to the Korean War, establishing a peace agreement and denuclearization come after.
To North Korea, the United States might have seemed like a “gangster” because it wanted to skip the first and second articles and go directly to the third. But Washington feels differently. Denuclearization is the essence of the issue and needs to be addressed first, which is why the United States demanded a list of nuclear weapons from North Korea. Both countries are looking in different directions.
The next critical point will be the UN General Assembly in late September. Kim Jong-un will have to travel to the United States and make a breakthrough, whether that’s declaring a formal end to a war that technically never finished or making a grand compromise with the United States. Kim might think North Korea could be recognized as a nuclear state like Pakistan by buying time, but it could end up like Iraq, too. It might just be a matter of time before Trump denounces the Singapore agreement as “fake.”
Many say that one of the reasons we have come this far is because Trump is an unconventional leader. But this time, that might be the biggest risk factor. For Kim and South Korea, not much time is left.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 1, Page 30