A good-enough summit
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Two days after the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam, Japan’s Fuji Television aired an interesting scene. At 9:40 a.m. on Feb. 28, the two leaders strolled around an outdoor swimming pool at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi shortly after their head-on-head meeting. The scene captured the moment of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol, the vice chairman of the North’s Central Committee of Workers’ Party, waiting at the edge of the swimming pool for both leaders to return from their walk. As the four men gathered, Kim Jong-un extended his hand to Pompeo for a handshake and briefly uttered something. His interpreter translated it on the spot.
At the time, it was impossible to tell what Kim was saying because his words were buried in camera flash sounds and other noises in the background. Fuji TV dug in. It commissioned a Japanese acoustic research center to analyze Kim’s message. Based on the results, Fuji TV reported that Kim, through his interpreter, asked Pompeo, “Was that idea all there?” Pompeo was said to have responded by saying, “I don’t know.” Pointing to Pompeo, who immediately looked around and left the spot — as if looking for someone — after the question, the television analyzed that Kim had supposedly asked Pompeo whether hard-line U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton would join an expanded meeting later. Pompeo could have left the scene pretending he was looking for Bolton, the TV said.
It is still a mystery. What exactly did Kim mean by “that idea” and why did Pompeo had to respond by saying he had no idea?
A recent Reuters report could explain that. On March 30, the news agency reported that Trump gave Kim a document demanding North Korea transfer its nuclear weapons and missile fuel to the United States and fully dismantle all its nuclear facilities, chemical and biological weapons programs, ballistic missiles and launchers. That idea must have been unacceptable to Kim as it combined Pompeo’s vision for final, fully verified denuclearization and Bolton’s Libyan model. Kim Hyun-chong, second deputy director of the Blue House National Security Office, also admitted that Seoul had been aware of Trump’s proposition.
Moon has another summit with Trump in Washington on Thursday. A high-level official in South Korea’s Foreign Ministry who visited Washington a week ago said the meeting is significant on its own — but that’s not true. Before meeting Trump, Moon should have first figured out whether Kim has changed his mind about anything since the Hanoi summit, and Moon and Trump must discuss the denuclearization issue based on any such changes. Would the United States accept any of Seoul’s denuclearization proposals, including a deal for step-by-step implementation; the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility along with a “snapback” program; and a “good-enough deal”? Washington is looking for the “right deal.” Even if Trump says he respects Moon, Seoul will find it hard to win the respect of U.S. officials and Congress, who were convinced during the Hanoi summit that Pyongyang is unwilling to denuclearize. It’s also unclear whether Pyongyang will agree to Seoul’s denuclearization proposal.
This week, North Korea will hold a plenary meeting of its newly-elected legislature. If Pyongyang sends a hostile message, it’s probably the end of the game. I don’t know if the Blue House was aware of this risk, and despite it, pushed through the summit. But if Moon manages to hear from Trump that the South-U.S. alliance is “the linchpin” of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region through the summit — which he has never said since taking office — that could be a “good-enough deal.”
JoongAng Ilbo, April 10, Page 30