Getting from show to substance
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.
Americans famously don’t pay much attention to international news, but the images they woke up to Sunday morning June 30 from the Korean DMZ grabbed their attention. Donald Trump, the former reality TV star now in the White House, stepped across the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) bisecting the JSA (Joint Security Area) to greet Kim Jong-un, declaring it an honor to meet Kim there and to be the first sitting American president to step into North Korea.
Throughout the day on Sunday, I was struck by how negative the commentary was on the news and cable programs, and on social media. The customary defenders of President Trump’s unorthodox style seemed not to have been prebriefed, and responded with the standard line about how nothing else has worked so we should give Trump’s unconventional approach a chance to work.
Other than that, from every other commentator, the criticism was blistering. It boiled down to this: People didn’t like the image of an American president fawning over a ruthless dictator who brutalizes his own people and continues to stockpile nuclear weapons, giving Kim an enormous propaganda victory at home while getting nothing in return.
This was a revival of the debate that had accompanied Trump’s 2018 pivot from fire and fury to a charm offensive with Kim Jong-un. The Singapore and Hanoi summits had largely normalized what had previously been a diplomatic taboo, or so I thought. It even had a name, “top-down.” Across the American political spectrum, and notwithstanding one’s opinion of Trump or evaluation of the prospects for success, wide support had been voiced for the idea of an American president engaging in direct diplomacy on North Korea. Ironically, it may have been the vivid DMZ images with Kim, combined with the extreme unctuousness of their public exchanges, that prompted such an impassioned return to the debate about the efficacy and morality of such summitry.
What got lost in this reaction to the DMZ meeting is that it was actually a neat solution to a real problem, that of how to restart diplomacy following the failure of the Hanoi Summit. If Hanoi exposed the limit of “top-down” diplomacy, the “spontaneous” meeting at the DMZ gave Kim a face-restoring way to get back to the table. Trump also edged away from the maximalist position he had taken in Hanoi, hinting at a readiness to discuss a more gradual approach to denuclearization, and empowering Secretary Pompeo and Special Representative Biegun by having them literally in the frame at the DMZ.
There are rumors that the ARF (Asia Regional Forum) later this summer could be the venue for at long last starting these talks. That would be welcome. If they are to make progress, the DPRK negotiators will need the authority and expertise to discuss all issues, including, of course, denuclearization steps. The U.S. side should be open to having these meetings, perhaps for lengthy periods, in Pyongyang or elsewhere in the DPRK, to be sure that decisions can be made and that they will stick. Washington has its own challenges in this regard, but in my view the best chance for progress in a negotiation is to do it in or near Pyongyang.
I have been to Panmunjom multiple times over the years with a variety of people for a variety of reasons. What never changes is the unforgettable impact it has on everyone, including me. The first time was in the summer of 1975, soon after I arrived in Korea to work as a Peace Corps volunteer. At that time there was no concrete curb to step over in the JSA; that came after the terrible tree cutting/ax murders incident of 1976. As Ambassador in 2010, in the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking and the Yongpyongdo shelling, I went together with then Secretaries Clinton and Gates. My most recent visit was in spring 2018 with a group of Stanford University students where we saw hopeful preparations for quickening inter-Korean dialogue and had a chance encounter with another visitor, Senator Elizabeth Warren.
The June 30 Trump “drop-by” to see his friend Kim Jong-un is not how I would I have imagined, in either style or substance, the first U.S. Presidential step into North Korea. But if it kick-starts real negotiations, it will have been worth it. Less noticed in the U.S., but equally important, it was the first-ever visit by an American President and South Korean President to the DMZ together, as allies, bringing a message of resolve and reconciliation. That is very welcome. The goal now is to move from show to substance.