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On again, off again, on again: The U.S./North Korea summit

Could the Korean Peninsula turn a page on its heartbreaking modern history?

Image Credit: AFP File Photo
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Just a little over two weeks ago, on May 24th, after more than a week of back and forth between the White House and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the U.S. president announced that he would no longer be attending a planned summit with his North Korean counterpart in Singapore on June 12th. The announcement came just two days after South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, had visited the White House in the hope of keeping the proposed talks on track.

Unlike his earlier bluster, most of it made publicly available through the medium of Twitter, but also expressed in his September 19th, 2017 speech to the United Nations, President Trump’s public letter to Kim Jong-un had an unexpectedly wistful tone, “I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters,” he wrote.

While it’s most likely that he chose these words (or, more probably, dictated them) in the way he did because of his well known egomania, it could be that the President was referring to others within his administration, whose public statements appeared to have ended the prospects for historic meeting.

The new U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who older diplomats and security officials in the DPRK know well from his stint as undersecretary of state for arms control during the George W. Bush era, had taken to the airwaves to make the claim that any negotiations with North Korea should follow the ‘Libyan model’.

While we still don’t know very much about Kim Jong-un, he couldn’t have failed to note the existential threat hiding beneath the thinnest of see-through veils.

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Although he has a history of saber rattling with the DPRK, I underestimated NSA Bolton’s recklessness; I had thought, with the aim of heating up the conflict with Iran and keeping the highest post he is ever likely to hold in the U.S. government, he might keep silent, at least publicly, on an issue that seems important to the President.

Bolton instead seems to have attempted to short circuit the July 12th meeting, relying on the US President’s lack of knowledge of even very recent history and, perhaps by accident, the Vice President’s rigidly ideological world view and lack of diplomatic experience.

As implied above, Bolton’s words were then followed up by a similar statement from Pence, who, while he certainly looks like a politician, has demonstrated time and again that he’s far from a natural at actually being one.

The Vice President had already insulted the North Korean leader when he refused to acknowledge his sister, Kim Yo Jong, at the PyeonChang Olympics. The presence of Kim’s sister was important in purely symbolic terms for many Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, as she was the first member of her family to visit the South since 1953.()

When Choe Son Hui, an official in the North Korean Foreign Ministry referred to Pence as a “political dummy”, this was another example of the country’s in your face ‘diplomacy’, but it was also notable that the words weren’t, as they often are, ascribed to the leader of North Korea. Most of us don’t have the connections and access to experts that the Vice President does but can still understand that the ongoing Libya debacle shouldn’t be put forward as a reference point for negotiations on the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program and, more broadly, a warmer peace on the Korean Peninsula.

President Trump understood this, although it isn’t clear if he knew the earlier history of Gaddafi giving up his WMD and ending his short-lived nuclear program in 2003, when he was embraced by western leaders like Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy, only to be deserted by them 8 years later.

Trump told reporters on May 18th, after Bolton’s remarks, and while his National Security Advisor looked on, that, “The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea. The model, if you look at that model with Gaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him. Now that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if we make a deal, I  think Kim Jong-un is going to be very, very happy.”

Throughout this process, which finally settled on going ahead with the summit after Kim Yong Chol, a four star general and former North Korean intelligence chief, brought an over sized letter from Kim Jong-un to the White House. As reported by ABC News, the former Kim is believed to be very close to DPRK’s young leader and was called “the second most powerful person in North Korea” by the U.S. President. His visit presumably played a large role in saving the meeting in Singapore.

While there’s been a lot of hand wringing on the part of most of the American establishment about the possibility of peace breaking out on the Korean Peninsula, if, as multiple sources have speculated, the goal of the summit is to take the first steps toward officially ending the Korean War, on the knife’s edge of renewed hostilities since the 1953 Armistice created a truce but not an official end to the conflict.

While most of the issues to be discussed at the summit have not been made public, we do know that removing the almost 30,000 American service members based in South Korea is not on the table, “Obviously if the diplomats can do their work, if we can reduce the threat, if we can restore confidence-building measures with something verifiable, then, of course, these kinds of issues can come up subsequently between (South Korea and the US),” James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, recently told the press.

And, although it hasn’t been too widely reported, there are now experts on hand to help with the preparations, although the inexperienced Trump Administration, for whatever reason, has been slow to deploy them. While I don’t know his political views, its good news that Sung Kim, who was born in South Korea and was ambassador to that country from November 2011 to October 2014 has been pulled from his current post and sent to the Peninsula. He also served as Special Envoy for 6 party talks regarding the issue of North Korean nukes the last time the idea of diplomacy seemed to have some traction.

As reported by the Washington Post, Sung has already met with Choe Son Hui, the DPRK’s vice foreign minister, who penned the response to the remarks of Bolton and Vice-President Pence referred to above, who he knows from the previous six party talks in 2005.

While Kim Jong-un has shown ruthlessness in consolidating his power, his approach to foreign policy, at least since he announced that his country would be participating in the PyeongChang Olympics has been less bellicose and this has made his hand stronger.

“North Korea is in a stronger position, Kim has far more legitimacy,” Abraham Denmark, a former American deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia opined on Twitter, “China is more engaged, South Korea has invested a lot into diplomacy, and the U.S. role is more circumscribed.”

It also seems that the influence of the military in North Korea may be declining in favor of the political leadership. While there is no way of knowing for sure what the reasoning was, it’s notable that the DPRK’s top three military officials were removed from their posts and replaced by individuals believed to be more loyal to Kim.

One of the problems on the North Korean side is the actual expense of accommodating Kim and other officials in the famously expensive meeting place due to the harsh international sanctions that have crippled the DPRK’s economy. Thankfully, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), has offered the money that came with the prize it won for its advocacy, to help pay for any needed accommodation.

As Akira Kawasaki of ICAN told Reuters, “The Nobel Peace Prize included a cash prize and we are offering funds from the prize to cover the costs for the summit, in order to support peace in the Korean Peninsula and a nuclear-weapon-free-world.”

The decline of U.S. influence in east Asia has allowed other countries, especially China and Russia who both have more at stake, to play a positive role, but the majority of the credit will, if things work out eventually be given to South Korea’s President Moon, the child of North Korean refugees, whose humility in dealing with very difficult people, both allies and enemies, has revealed him as a hero for peace.

Last weekend, in a related story, Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ participated in an international women’s peace delegation to South Korea during which she, the delegation and 1200 South Korean women crossed the Unification Bridge while President Moon and Chairman Kim held a historic meeting in Panmunjon on the DPRK side.

She explained her feelings thus, “We were the first civilians to walk across the Unification Bridge. As I took my first step onto the bridge, tears streamed down my face as I thought about how Korea was divided by the US and the former Soviet Union after 35 years of Japanese colonial occupation.”

At least in this moment, which may be fleeting, the Korean Peninsula could begin to turn a page on its heartbreaking modern history.

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