As I pointed out yesterday, much of the public and media chatter around prospect of a U.S.-North Korea summit has now shifted to how Trump and Kim are framing the core issue — denuclearization — in different ways. But in the past week or so, there has also been a flurry of other commentary from people who are close to the situation, or with important takes.
Here’s some of the best of what has caught my eye.
Tony Spaeth, in the New York Review of Books, has pulled together the most comprehensive run-up to both the inter-Korean and U.S.-NK summits. Spaeth, a former Dow Jones journalist in Asia who edited the English-language version of JoongAng Ilbo for much of the time I was in Seoul, stands out because he writes about the political incentives and constraints in the Koreas, not just the U.S. I’d note that T.K., the blogger at Ask a Korean, wrote about what he called “first principles” for inter-Korean diplomacy back in January around the time when North Korea agreed to participate in the Olympics, way before all this summitry was considered realistic. His post from then is worth reading again.
Bob Carlin, writing at 38 North, explores a part of North Korea’s statement last Friday that was overlooked by most media: that the military first, or byungjin, policy of his father’s is over and it’s time for a “new strategic line” that places greater emphasis on economic development. Carlin writes this is the “pivot” that outsiders have been hoping for. If so, it means that Kim is approaching the upcoming summits with the idea that they will help him execute this pivot. Clearly, that will be Kim’s objective in the summit with South Korea’s Moon. Carlin writes, “Kim knows that his father started down a similar path in 2002, but was diverted by a combination of external obstacles, push-back by conservatives, and a wobbly commitment to see the process through. Rather than take half measures at the start, Kim Jong Un has seemingly decided that he will be all in, that the party and bureaucracy will not be allowed to fiddle with the new line, and that laggards will get in step or else.”
Yeh Young-june, the China bureau chief for Joong Ang Ilbo writing on its op-ed page, raises the question that would be the first thing I would ask Kim if I were Moon Jae-in or Donald Trump: Are you ready to give up your nuclear weapons? Yeh writes, “President Moon Jae-in or U.S. President Donald Trump now have a chance to directly confirm Kim’s determination to denuclearize at the summits. It couldn’t be better if Kim transparently expresses his will to abandon all nuclear weapons and programs.” The summits will be a failure in my eyes if the two leaders don’t get Kim to plainly express his intentions. As I think about this, my first question to Kim would probably be: Do you still want to control South Korea? Because everything else flows from his answer to that.
Tyler Cowen, the George Mason economist writing again at Bloomberg View, talks about the scenario I see as the one most likely to play out: a slow walk back to multi-party negotiations that take years and produce little change but plenty of stability. There’s nothing wrong with that, he writes, and he’s right when you consider that the alternative is war. “Think of any diplomatic talks with North Korea as a big act of theater — designed not to fool him [Kim}, but to teach him that theater itself can be fun,” Cowen writes.
Daniel Gallington, in a piece for the Washington Times, lists nine goals that Kim Jong Un probably has for the summits with Moon and Trump. Speculative, of course, but much of it seems reasonable. He believes the U.S. needs to do something to “get his [Kim’s] attention” and make the dictator realize that his goals are unreachable.
Steve Tharp, a retired U.S. Army officer who frequently negotiated with North Koreans in the DMZ and was a valuable source to me and many foreign correspondents for decades in Seoul, wrote an op-ed in the Korea Times that sums up the view of this moment from one of the people who has seen it all. For an American, the headline sums it up “Lucy and the football.” Tharp writes that is the same old song, new verse and we should keep our guard up. He remembers waiting for Peanuts creator Charles Schulz to produce his fall classic strip in which Lucy would rip away the football just as Charlie Brown ran up to kick it:
Each year, even though we knew what would happen, I along with the other millions of readers waited intently for the “Lucy and the Football” strip just to see how Lucy would sucker in the naive Charlie Brown. I’m keeping Lucy’s mantra in mind while I wait to see how the Kim-family regime will walk away this time.