In 24 hours’ time South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in will land in Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile the United States and North Korea are working to set up a second meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim.
These two developments boost hope for negotiations on denuclearising the North, after summits between the three leaders were held in quick succession earlier this year.
But optimism should be guarded. A solution to the nuclear crisis, which has threatened security and stability in the region for a quarter of a century, will not come soon or easily. History tells you why prospects are less than sunny.
Ominous recent shadows include Trump’s abrupt abortion of the summit before eventually agreeing to meet Kim, the recent cancellation of a Pyongyang trip by his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and, more importantly, Kim’s failure to follow up on his promise to denuclearise.
Nevertheless, fresh momentum is needed to break the deadlock over what should come first – declaring an end to the Korean War, which the North regards as necessary to its own security – or concrete steps towards scrapping its nuclear programme. The sense of déjà vu is strong. The vicious circle started in 1993 with the North’s withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty: The communist country makes provocations, seeks rewards in consequent negotiations, and then derails the talks or swallows its promises, only to revert to hostility.
In the meantime, the regime continues to build its nuclear and missile capabilities.
Two major agreements fit well into the cycle – the 1994 Agreed Framework signed with the US and the 2007 six-party talks accord. Both arranged for other countries to provide economic assistance and energy supplies to the North in exchange for denuclearisation. Both fell through, giving the North time to conduct as many as six nuclear tests and develop a missile it claims is capable of hitting the mainland US. Those claims have been backed by independent experts.
Will the current leader take a different path from his grandfather and father?
The North’s founding father Kim II-sung hatched nuclear ambitions in the 1950s and accelerated the weapons programme after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, which coincided with the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from South Korea.
His son Kim Jong-il, despite landmark summits with two liberal South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, held on to the nukes and missiles.
During the crises, the international community, led by the US and South Korea, has maintained diplomatic negotiations with North Korean leaders. But the Kim family never intended to give up nukes and kept cheating their way out of the crises.
Kim Jong-un recently complained that the US does not trust his commitment to denuclearisation despite what he has done – demolishing a nuclear test site and a missile-testing facility. But memories remain fresh of a 2008 publicity stunt in which the North invited international media to witness the dismantling of a cooling tower in Yongbyon, its main nuclear site.
Different US leader
The North conducted its second nuclear test the following year. This track record reinforces deep scepticism about the 34-year-old Kim’s promise to abandon nuclear weapons, which the Kim family has cherished as a means to protect the country from foreign invasion and perpetuate its dynastic rule.
In order to dispel the doubts, Kim needs to take substantial steps – like declaring an inventory of its nuclear and missile capacities and opening them to international inspection.
One more thing Kim should remember is that he is dealing with Donald Trump, a man very different from the US leaders his grandfather and father faced. Kim and the world need to think about the possibility of Trump – whose chaotic administration has been exposed by Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” and an anonymous op-ed piece penned by a White House official in the New York Times – exploiting foreign policy issues like North Korea for his political advantage.
The anonymous writer said that meetings with Trump “veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back”.
Truly, an issue like the North Korean nuclear crisis is the last thing to be dealt with in such a manner. But no one can rule out the possibility of Trump miscalculating and making an impulsive decision – one which could result in a catastrophe for the North and the world.
President Moon’s role as mediator is crucial. It was then-South Korean President Kim Young-sam who persuaded Bill Clinton not to bomb Yongbyon at the peak of the first nuclear crisis in 1994.
Moon, a strong advocate of reconciliation with the North, has already brokered the Singapore summit, and is pushing for vigorous reconciliation programmes with the North to the degree that there are concerns about causing cracks in the UN-led sanctions against Pyongyang. It is also fortunate that Trump still speaks well of Kim.
North Korea’s leader should take advantage of these favourable conditions. Unlike him, both Trump and Moon have a limited time in office, and they may encounter political opposition to their North Korea policies unless they achieve noticeable progress on denuclearisation in the near future.
Kim says he wants his country to achieve faster economic growth than China and Vietnam. Taking action to disarm, not making promises, should be his first step.
The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors at Asia News Network newspapers and published across the region.