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The Korean Summit and After: What the Experts Say, and Miss

In the wake of the inter-Korean summit meeting, analysts are having a field day taking apart the Panmunjom Declaration of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in and speculating about how Donald Trump will handle Kim should they meet in May or June. With few exceptions, the analysts believe that the declaration’s agreements should not be taken too seriously, that North Korea is not about to denuclearize, and that Kim may take Donald Trump for a ride if they do meet. What these analysts miss is that opportunities remain for advancing mutual security on the Korean peninsula, if the US is willing to bargain. Here are four commentaries that illustrate the kinds of opinions we are hearing.

Four Views

Victor Cha, a key adviser in the George W. Bush administration and now a professor at Georgetown University, is cautiously optimistic. He withdrew as Trump’s nominee for ambassador to South Korea in protest of those in the administration who were advocating using force against North Korea. Cha writes over the years there have been plenty of good-feeling North-South proclamations. “Still, there’s something different this time around. The language in the summit communique clearly reflects the urgency of South Korean concerns about the peninsula’s approach to the brink in 2017 . . . North Korea’s reciprocal interest in diplomacy may reflect not just the persuasiveness of its southern counterpart’s diplomatic overtures but also concerns about Trump’s threats of war.”

Cha seems to doubt that Trump will be able to negotiate complete denuclearization. Andrei Lankov, a longtime observer of North Korean affairs based in Seoul, agrees and argues the point forcefully. “Pyongyang leaders have no intention of surrendering their nuclear weapons. They see nukes as the major, even only, guarantee of their regime’s long-term survival. They believe that without nukes they are as good as dead, and recent history — Iraq, Ukraine, and, above all Libya —confirms their worst expectations.” Yes, Kim Jong-un aims to improve the North Korean economy, and is enjoying some success. But, writes Lankov, “regime survival is far more important to him than any economic growth, so no amount of promised economic benefits will lure him into surrendering his nukes.”

Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute has little patience for diplomacy with North Korea. He probably speaks for the Trump hardliners when he asserts that Kim Jong-un’s goal is the same as his grandfather’s and father’s: to unite the Korean peninsula under his rule by dividing the South from the US and forcing the US to abandon its nuclear umbrella. “Peeling Seoul off might just open up the breathing space necessary to bring the North’s nuclear game up to the next level — and if Washington could be fooled into inadvertently undermining its own sanctions campaign, all the better.” In his view, the North is totally untrustworthy and regards talks as a game in which only its interpretation—for example, of “denuclearization”—is acceptable. “A good negotiation ends with North Korea taking everything that’s up for grabs, and also with humiliation or outright disgrace for the other side.”

Max Boot at the Council of Foreign Relations offers another conservative view. Boot is convinced the Sunshine policy of Moon Jae-in’s predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, was a failure and that we’ve seen all this before—“lofty but empty language” that masks promises that will never be fulfilled. Forgetting that Mao Zedong welcomed the “chieftain of imperialism,” Richard Nixon, to Beijing, Boot believes Kim Jong-un will never abandon reunification of all Korea under the North’s rule. Kim “is pursuing his family’s old policy of mixing provocations such as missile tests with peace offensives designed to convince the West to relax sanctions and extend his odious regime a life line. We would be well advised not to fall for this gambit — again.”

The Process is the Thing

The Kim-Moon declaration is only a vague road map to peace. It echoes the positive language and many particulars of the two previous summit statements, in 2000 and 2007.* All three focus on the common aspiration for national reunification, Korean self-determination (we are masters of our fate), the importance of North-South exchanges, and peace through dialogue and military threat reduction. But the documents are short on specifics, leading to their often being dismissed as mere rhetoric, amidst warnings not to trust those communists.

The central issue today, however, posed by Victor Cha’s op-ed, is how, in a changed strategic and economic environment, the good intentions of the Panmunjom Declaration might actually be translated into a sustainable peace. That question includes the intentions of the Trump administration: Will it follow the Koreans’ lead and accept the idea of an engagement process, or will it insist on immediate and complete North Korean denuclearization?

Cha notes that previous North Korean commitments to foreswear nuclear weapons went deeper than the current one, which refers to a future nuclear-free peninsula. That makes Andrei Lankov’s prediction all the more valid: When Kim Jong-un talks of “denuclearization,” he does not mean surrender of the nuclear deterrent, least of all at the outset of talks and before getting any concessions in return. Still, there is plenty of room for bargaining, and for both Eberstadt and Boot to dismiss the idea of negotiating with the North Koreans makes little sense. Both Pyongyang and Washington bear responsibility for past failures to implement agreements. Moon Jae-in is no fool; he knows the odds on reaching a sustainable agreement with Kim Jong-un, but he also accepts the imperative of trying lest Koreans face another war. Engagement entails building trust, which is why the April 27 declaration is not only about the nuclear issue but just as importantly about increased North-South economic, military, and people-to-people contact. As Kim Jong-un reportedly told the South Koreans that same day, “If we meet often and build trust with the US, and if an end to the [Korean] war and nonaggression are promised, why would we live in difficulty with nuclear weapons?”

Trump is the wild card here. He has indicated more than once that he will walk away from a bad deal, which presumably means he will reject anything short of complete and rapid North Korean denuclearization rather than engage, as Moon (and, apparently, Kim Jong-un) would have it, in give-and-take. Bargaining for mutual advantage simply isn’t part of Trump’s “art of the deal.” If it were, we might imagine an agreement with Kim Jong-un that would create a permanent freeze on nuclear weapons tests under international inspection, or a partial reduction of the North’s nuclear weapons, in exchange for a peace treaty guaranteed by the US, China, and others; a gradual removal of sanctions; increased US-North Korea exchanges of people and goods; and a pathway to normalization of relations with the US and Japan. These kinds of mutual concessions and incentives to deeper engagement are the stuff of international diplomacy. But Trump is unfortunately wedded to an all-or-nothing business model that bodes ill for an enduring Korean peace.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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