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John Bolton and Mike Pence must have known what they were doing. President Trump’s national security adviser and Vice President could not have been oblivious that advocating a “Libya model” for North Korea’s denuclearization would go over badly with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who presumably does not wish to be overthrown and killed after giving up his nukes, the fate that befell Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
President Trump’s public release of his bizarre letter to Kim canceling their June 12 summit meeting in Singapore (many commentators are calling it a “breakup letter” as if Trump were a conflicted teenager), needlessly reminding Kim and the world of the U.S.’s huge nuclear arsenal, is just his latest erratic act. It is a hard kick in the teeth to the leaders of both South and North Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Trump at the White House less than 48 hours before the announcement and apparently was not notified of Trump’s decision to punt on the summit. Presumably, he had barely gotten back to Seoul before being forced to call an emergency national security council meeting at 11:30 p.m. Korea time. It also came the very day North Korea carried out its stated intention to destroy its main nuclear test site, a decision Trump had applauded.
It’s possible this is a momentary hitch in Korea diplomacy, albeit one that risks squandering the astonishing momentum for peace and reconciliation built up just since the beginning of the year. (Remember the breathtaking, hopeful spirit of the Winter Olympics in South Korea? It seems long ago at this point, but Koreans North and South certainly do.) Trump’s letter did contain some positive points, and it left the door open to a possible resumption of talks (the president told Kim “…if you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write…,” presumably with a smiley-face on the stationery).
While ultimately the United States will need to be part of any peace deal, inter-Korean diplomacy toward peace and reconciliation, supported by other peace-makers and diplomats, should continue. Nobody in the current administration has any track record of success in international peace and diplomacy, but such people do exist, including some who made progress with North Korea in the past. They could task themselves with doing the job Trump and company are backing away from, offering to advise or serve this administration, or going to Korea themselves to make peace.
If former President Jimmy Carter got on a plane to Pyongyang, had a successful meeting with Kim Jong-un, and came back with the makings of a peace deal, would Trump dare disavow it? As this is unfortunately very unlikely, the former president and other serious diplomats can continue to speak out in support of peace and diplomacy in public, and also advise the amateurs in the current regime as to how this game works, if Trump and company can swallow their egos for a minute and listen (doubtful, I know).
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his administration should continue “aggressive mediation” as his special adviser Moon Chung-in vowed last week. North and South Korea can continue to make progress on family reunifications, returning remains of deceased soldiers from the Korean War, increased economic integration, reducing military tensions including a framework for denuclearization, and possible confederation or reunification, as long as it’s done on terms agreeable to the Korean people. (President Moon’s approval rating in South Korea is above 80 percent, largely for his diplomatic initiatives, making him the most popular elected leader on the planet.)
International civil society certainly has an interest in seeking peace on the Korean peninsula, as do governments in the region. The U.S. Congress needs to seriously step up its game in advocating peace and denouncing Trump’s threats of nuclear war. And the American public needs to tell Trump war is not the answer, diplomacy is the only solution to the crisis he intermittently stokes. There is no time to wait on that, and the faith, peace and Korean-American groups and activists in the Korean Peace Network will carry that message to Capitol Hill at our Advocacy Days in Washington June 11 and 12.
Given the unpredictability of the current U.S. president, who may fear for his job given the investigations and controversies swirling around him, this decision is not a complete surprise. While it seems more distant at this time, in the words of singer-songwriter David Crosby, “Peace is not an awful lot to ask.”