President Trump’s statement Tuesday, in front of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe no less, that the U.S. has been in contact at the highest levels with North Korea marked a turning point on the question of how real this summit stuff is. It’s clear Trump is all-in. The White House underscored that by subsequently disclosing that Mike Pompeo went to North Korea on April 1 and met Kim Jong Un himself.
Now we know when the working level talks between the U.S. and North Korea happened, the ones that led to headlines in South Korean media about the stances of the two countries. And so, the Korea Shock is real. The U.S. and North Korea are engaged in their first real diplomacy since the February 2013 agreement that fell apart the next month and, really, since the Six Party Talks that climaxed with an disarmament-for-energy deal in February 2007. It was the Six Party Talks that had all the issues on the table that we are seeing discussed now — from denuclearization to a peace treaty that ends the Korean War to setting up formal relations with North Korea. And there was a formal framework to make all of that happen in six stages.
In South Korea, most of the attention is on next week’s inter-Korean summit between Kim and President Moon Jae-in. The Moon administration has cajoled the North Koreans into allowing live broadcast of portions of the summit, as happened in 2007 when Roh Moo-hyun meet Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. And Moon continues to tee expectations up ever-higher, calling it a “big turning point in world history.” On Tuesday, Moon cabinet members and aides said that Moon and Kim would talk about ending the Korean War, and Trump said he’s supportive of that discussion. That prompted the usual analysis that South Korea isn’t technically a signer of the armistice and that the U.S. and China would actually have to end the Korean War.
No matter, Trump clearly wants to go big on North Korea, as Uri Friedman pointed out in the Atlantic today, and will find a way to end the war if that’s what the Koreas want. As someone who has long complained about having U.S. troops overseas protecting rich countries like South Korea who he says don’t pay enough, Trump may be quite willing to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea. North Korea wants that, of course, and the Moon government may want that too. Tony Spaeth, who edited the English version of Joong Ang Daily for a few years in Seoul, wrote this analysis about Moon’s unrelenting drive for a deal with North Korea and the domestic politics he is confronting.
Adding to the hype in Seoul right now, the South Korea government has come up with an English slogan for the inter-Korean summit — Peace, A New Start — and a website for it. That prompted my former colleague Jonathan to tweet:
Only thing this inter-Korean summit is missing at this point is two cute mascots and some themed long padding jackets.https://t.co/fS46ndhDyZ
— Jonathan Cheng (@JChengWSJ) April 18, 2018
But remember, with the exception of the heads of the U.S. and North Korea meeting, we have been here before, as recently as 2008, and it all turned into nothing.
I can never forget how excited U.S. officials were in late 2006 as they neared the deal in which North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons pursuit in return for about $250 million in oil and fuel. That was to have been the first step that, within just a few years, would have led to peace and formal relations. All that fell apart in 2008, though there are disagreements over precisely when (in that collapse and others too) but definitely by the time Kim Jong Il got sick in August that year.
Today, North Korea’s reasons for, and intentions beyond, these summits remain unknown. The people around Moon Jae-in are trying to spin them, however. Buried by all the rest of the news Tuesday was an AP interview with Moon Chung-in, a Yonsei University professor who participated in both the 2000 and 2007 summits and is close to President Moon. He represents the thinking in Seoul. Moon Chung-in is one of the few high-ranking people on the political left in South Korea who always made himself available to foreign correspondents and I enjoyed many discussions with him during my years in Seoul. He has long theorized about an economic pivot by North Korea. We’ll see if he’s right this time.
Professor Moon and others around President Moon can say all they want, but they cannot be certain of anything. This is still North Korea’s show. The person really calling the shots is Kim Jong Un.