Peace in Korea is possible: Talks between Trump and Kim Jong-un will define the future
Foreign policy cliques in D.C. are eager to shut down this process: America’s choice is to join or risk isolation
A few weeks ago, it was sensible to ask where the Trump administration intended to take the diplomatic process on the Korean peninsula. A season of summits had been set: North and South Korean leaders would meet. President Trump agreed to a summit with Kim Jong-un. What would Trump decide to do? Or — better put — what would Trump’s foreign policy minders allow him to decide to do?
As of last week this does not seem the most useful line of inquiry. It is no longer where the U.S. may take the negotiating process so much as where the negotiating process may take the U.S. It is not as if Trump and his policy people are riding a runaway train, although it may now seem so. It is that those in the region now seem determined to commandeer a train the Americans have driven for 65 years.
This is a remarkable turn, especially when considered in historical context. Before our eyes the U.S. may now be forced to cede control of geopolitics in Northeast Asia to those in the region driven to impatience as Washington has — with intent, it has frequently seemed — brought the Korean Peninsula as close to war as it has been since the U.S. and the North signed an armistice in 1953.
In the past little while:
- Kim surprised everyone last month when he traveled to China for a summit with Xi Jinping. The conventional wisdom had been that Beijing was fed up with Kim’s never-ending missile and nuclear tests. There has been plenty to support this view, although it is often overstated. In my read, Kim’s announcement earlier this year that he was open to negotiations with Seoul and Washington was decisive in defrosting ties between the North and China.
- Shortly after Kim’s brief visit to Beijing, he advised the U.S. through diplomatic channels (which remain unclear) that he considered denuclearization of the peninsula negotiable. This removed a formidable barrier to a settlement.
- This turn in Pyongyang–Beijing relations was confirmed last Sunday, when Kim received Song Tao, a key Chinese diplomat on the Korean scene, with exceptional warmth during the latter’s visit to the North Korean capital. Coming as the season of summits gets underway, the encounter suggests Kim is now working more or less closely with the Chinese on the terms of a comprehensive settlement of the nuclear issue.
- On Wednesday South Korea announced that when President Moon Jae-in meets with Kim at the 38th parallel later this week, he intends to propose a formal peace treaty between the two Koreas. In an instant, the diplomatic process unfolding since the start of this year got magnitudes larger: Moon seems to want a nuclear settlement to be the front door to some form of normalization between the long-divided halves of Korea.
- A day later Kim came up with another surprise: He will no longer insist that the U.S. remove the 28,000 troops it maintains in the South as a precondition to a nuclear settlement. Washington has always considered these troops nonnegotiable.
- And on Friday evening Kim delivered his caker: The North has suspended all nuclear and missile tests and closed its nuclear test site, effective Saturday morning. “The nuclear test site has done its job,” Kim said in his statement. At this point it is difficult to see what more Kim could do to signal his desire to deal with the U.S. We will now have to see if Washington still holds to the core contradiction in its demands to date: Agree to everything we want before we begin to talk.
Wow. Pretty eventful week. And count ’em up: Everyone in the region is talking to everyone else, all with the same intent: To end six and a half decades of hostility in Northeast Asia and get on with a peaceful order in Washington’s ever-handy “hotspot” in the western Pacific.
It is interesting to see where last week’s developments land the U.S. My favorite of several indicators came Wednesday, when Trump responded to the announcement that Moon wants to put a peace treaty on the table when he meets Kim in the demilitarized zone this week. “South Korea is meeting and has plans to meet to see if they can [formally] end the war and they have my blessing on that,” saith Trump.
I don’t know from “meeting and has plans to meet,” but let us set aside the splutter. In proffering his blessing as if it were papal the U.S. president underscored just what he intended to mask, it seems to me: Events outrun Washington. It scurries lately simply to keep pace, “leadership” now a pose.
We also learned last week that Mike Pompeo, then the CIA’s director and since nominated as secretary of state, secretly met Kim in Pyongyang on Easter Sunday. Pompeo and Trump were effusive in hailing the warmth of Kim’s hospitality and the promise of a fruitful summit with Trump in late May or early June. What is one to make of this?
There was a lot of grousing when this news broke to the effect that Trump had sent the CIA’s director to meet Kim rather than a State Department official. So what? Is this to suggest that State is populated by skilled, cultured mandarins attuned to the intricate delicacies of diplomacy? This is sheer mythology, especially if we are talking about the Asia desks at State. We have had no Asia policy for decades: We have a security policy run primarily by the Pentagon.
What matters is that Pompeo is Trump’s man and stands outside the policy cliques who keep the president on a leash one can practically see around his neck. This is what is interesting about the Pompeo visit.
Trump is on for this summit. This seems unmistakable to me. It is those around him, in rings extending throughout government and the political parties out to the think tanks, who remain ambivalent.
Here is how Evan Madeiros, who advised Barack Obama on Asia — to pitiful effect, one must observe — responded to Kim’s announcement that he would no longer set the removal of U.S. troops from the South as a precondition to a settlement: “It’s a classic, deft North Korean maneuver, which puts us at a disadvantage and makes us look like bad guys if we reject it.”
Memo to Madeiros:
Can anything North Korea says or does ever be taken as other than a maneuver with malign intent? If not, negotiation is by definition foreclosed, you will have to acknowledge as your view. What is the nature of your “disadvantage,” given that Pyongyang has just come Washington’s way on a very significant issue? I would call it advantage. Why on earth would the U.S. reject an offer to drop demands that it remove troops it insists on keeping in Northeast Asia? That would be to say, “Stop dropping your demands so we can keep on refusing them.”
It is still said often that Trump will walk the high wire when he meets Kim. I do not see the big risks there. They will talk, and a lot, some, a little or nothing will come of it. It is those who seem to think the U.S. can thwart the momentum toward a settlement who take the risks. Intent on preserving the status quo in the region, they do not seem able to see across the Pacific.
The risk they propose, in a single word, is isolation. It is a very real risk, and not only in Asia, as I have argued previously in this space. This I can tell you with certainty: If Washington scuttles a peaceful resolution in Korea, assuming one comes within reach, it will infuriate the South Koreans, the Chinese and probably other East Asian nations; trans-Pacific ties will drift toward precisely the alienation the U.S. needs most to avoid.
A notable coalescence emerged last week among the Asian nations concerned with the Korea question. The sole exception is Japan. It grieves me to see that after all these decades its leaders are still incapable of managing a voice that is independent of Washington’s. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese premier, was with Trump in Mar-a-Lago when he rendered his ridiculous “blessing.” As objective correlatives go, the scene could hardly have made the point more clearly.
Do I suggest that the heightened Korea crisis brings some fundamental question of identity to the surface? Do Asians draw together against the intruding Westerner on the basis of their shared impatience with the excruciating degree of tension introduced by Washington over the past year? This is too much to conclude, although anyone who knows Asia’s modern history knows that a consciousness of West and non-West lies just beneath the grace and harmony Asians are ever careful to cultivate in their addresses to Westerners.
No predictions, no forecasted outcomes. It is too soon to traffic in them. But already one grows slightly fluttery at the mere thought that peace on the Korean Peninsula tips into the realm of the possible. It will do for now. A year ago one would not have imagined events would have proceeded even this far.