As South Korean President Moon Jae-in touts the progress his administration has made in improving relations with North Korea, many of his fellow countrymen remain skeptical about the sincerity behind North Korea’s promises to end missile tests, and close its nuclear test site down permanently. South Koreans may not be entirely jaded, but they’ve been down this road enough times to know from experience that the chance of the North living up to its promises is slim. Earlier attempts by South Korean leaders to improve relations between the Koreas have all been relatively short-lived. The relationship between North and South always returned to the bitterness, and hostility that has largely defined it since the end of the Korean War. Moon enjoys a high level of popularity among South Koreans at the moment. However, if his renewed Sunshine Policy doesn’t net results, Moon could be facing political problems at home and abroad.
Moon appears convinced North Korea is sincere and desires complete denuclearization. He has been open in his opinions, and, whether he is aware of it or not, has become an unsanctioned interpreter of North Korea’s perceived intentions. Others would consider him to be something more akin to a mouthpiece for his North Korean counterpart. His determination to seal the deal on North Korean denuclearization and attach it to a potential peace treaty is bold and perilous. If North Korea does forfeit its nuclear weapons, Moon’s political capital will soar. On the flip side, if the North decides to keep its nuclear weapons, or the love-fest Moon is promoting does not carry over to US-North Korean relations, the South Korean leader will be the scapegoat.
Moon’s role in the current drama playing out is quite significant. However, it would benefit him to remember that he is a supporting character. Inter-Korean relations are secondary to the standoff between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear arsenal. The direction events go in following next week’s meeting between Moon and Kim Jong Un will be determined largely in Pyongyang and Washington, not Seoul.
North Korea announced today that it will be officially suspending missile testing, and the nuclear test site where six nuclear tests were conducted in the past will be closed.
“From April 21, North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a report Saturday morning. The announcement comes less than a week before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are scheduled to meet in the first inter-Korean summit to be held in over a decade.
Placing a moratorium on nuclear missile tests, and shutting down the nuclear test site are very likely calculated moves by Pyongyang. As North Korea basks in the glow of increasing media adoration, the hope probably is that these moves will be viewed as example of how Kim Jong Un and his government’s sincerity towards denuclearization, and its desire to improve relations with South Korea, and ultimately the United States.
This news just broke a short time ago, and as more information becomes available, I will add a more in-depth update Saturday evening or Sunday morning.
A formal end to the Korean War could be days away from becoming a reality. There are growing indications that the two Koreas are planning to announce the official end to the conflict. The Korean War ended with a ceasefire. No peace treaty or other statutory permanent agreement followed, meaning the war has been technically raging for 68 years although major combat between UN and North Korean/Chinese forces ended in 1953. A number of skirmishes have taken place between Combined Forces (US & South Korea) and North Korean troops. A number of them occasionally threatened to escalate into a major conflict, such as the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the 1976 murders of two US officers at Panmunjon.
Ahead of next week’s summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, officials from both nations appear to be working out the details for announcing the official end to the war shortly before the summit begins. The move would benefit both leaders tremendously. For Moon, bringing about an end to the Korean War would enable him to walk away from the summit with a victory that would play very well with South Koreans. For his North Korean counterpart, it would hopefully send a signal to the world that Kim Jong Un’s softening stance is genuine.
An agreement ending the Korean War would also raise expectations for the planned meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that’s expected to take place within the next month. Preparations for the meeting have been progressing for some time. Over Easter weekend, current CIA Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo allegedly met with Kim Jong Un according to the Washington Post. If true, the meeting confirms that high level Trump administration officials have been in contact with Un concerning plans for the summit, as Trump has indicated in recent days.
The path leading to a future meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un more closely resembles a minefield. A myriad of potentially explosive obstacles and variables will have to be navigated around or defused if the potential meeting is to become a reality. All parties involved are moving into uncharted territory. Never before have a US president and North Korean leader met face-to-face. Rarely in the past has a US president met with the leader of an adversarial nation-state during a period of such heightened tension. The 1961 summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna is probably the last time anything like this took place.
One of the driving forces behind the Vienna Summit was Khrushchev’s desire to size up the young American leader early in his presidency and determine what he was about. Something similar is happening right now. President Trump’s approach to North Korea is decidedly different from how his predecessors dealt with Pyongyang and it’s left Kim Jong Un stymied to a large degree. The curved strategy and strongarm tactics he used successfully with President Obama, and that his father used with Bush and Clinton have not worked with the current US president. Trump has been far more confrontational and direct in his dealings with the North Korean leader. Kim’s initial response was to raise the ante even more. This, however, only exacerbated the situation more and placed North Korea at a disadvantage.
For the moment, Trump and the United States has the initiative. North Korea’s extended PR/Propaganda offensive has brought it back into the game, though it will all be for nothing if Kim Jong Un does not meet with President Trump and negotiate in good faith. This is the point when the big picture becomes murky because of those obstacles and variables I spoke of before. Kim can point to one of these factors and use it as a reason to call off the meeting, whether the reason is genuine or not. Anything from the logistics of the meeting, to the roles played by South Korea and Japan have the potential to act as justifications for Kim to cancel the meeting and accuse the United States of deliberately setting up North Korea to look bad.
With luck, as the next week or two go on, the level of North Korea’s sincerity can be determined. If it becomes clear that Kim is simply wasting everyone’s time with the prospects of a US-North Korean meeting, don’t be surprised to see Trump cancel. Ironically enough, this could very well be exactly what Kim wants. Given the byzantine nature of North Korea’s actions and strategies it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Time will tell.
North Korea has laid out an offer it hopes cannot be refused by Seoul and Washington. During two days of talks in Pyongyang with envoys from South Korea, the North said it was willing to begin negotiations with the United States aimed at denuclearization, and would impose a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests during those talks. In a statement released by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, it was said that North Korea made it clear that it would have no reason to keep its nuclear weapons if the military threat to the country was eliminated and its security guaranteed. It is obvious that the North regards the United States as the primary military threat to its security, and survival.
Pyongyang also claims to want to make progress on the unification front, though on this subject their sincerity is even more questionable. Unification in the North is defined as reuniting the Korean peninsula under the rule of Kim’s regime. It means something quite different south of the DMZ, naturally. Both nations are moving forward with talks aimed at a late-April summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon. It would be the first Inter-Korean summit meeting in eleven years. On the subject of the annual US-South Korean military exercises to be held in April, Kim Jong Un claimed to understand why they needed to be held, though if the situation between the two Koreas stabilizes, he expects the size of the exercises to be adjusted.
The South Koreans were caught off guard by the flexibility of the North’s positions, Kim’s willingness to negotiate, and even give up his nuclear weapons under the right circumstances. Nevertheless, Seoul appears to be delighted with what the talks in Pyongyang have produced, both in substance and potential. Washington’s reaction will presumably be more guarded and pessimistic. North Korea’s newfound candor is out of character. Until concrete proof is presented to the White House, the Trump administration will remain hopeful, but regard Pyongyang’s words and promises as nothing more than Kim Jong Un selling a bill of goods.