Can it be a year, already? This day in 2018 saw the first ever summit between serving leaders of the United States and North Korea, when Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
(Kudos to the host nation, which shelled out $12 million on security – and also for Kim’s lodging. Yup, Juche means self-reliance – as in relying on your ability to get others to pay).
All concerned needed a spectacle, and boy did they get one. Global media turned out in force: 3000, was it? The images remain fresh. Kim’s walkabout on the waterfront. That selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister.
One shot proved truer than most. Recall that rear view of the two leaders. Kim’s hand is on Trump’s back, gently but firmly propelling him forwards. And so it proved, for a while.
Peace in Korea. Remember that? It was great while it lasted. All those breakthrough summits – not only in Singapore but also between the two Koreas, at Panmunjom and in Pyongyang. The smiles, the embraces, the accords. No more fire and fury. Peace in our time.
Such was 2018. But that was then. Where are we at now? In a very different place, alas.
Let’s face it: The Korean peace process is soooo last year. Yet the White House and South Korea’s Blue House are both in deep denial. That is both baffling and highly unhelpful.
The facts are clear: the wind changed direction this year. Even before the vaunted Hanoi summit collapsed, Kim Jong Un was cold-shouldering South Korea. In early May Pyongyang tested an advanced new ballistic missile – and then did it again. Kim’s U-turn could not be clearer.
Trump’s wider self-deception beggars belief
Trump and ROK President Moon Jae-in have every right to be dismayed. Each took a gamble on Kim’s good faith. But what makes no sense is pretending that the peace process they launched last year is still on track or in any sense alive, when patently it’s stone cold dead.
Trump was deluded from the start. The thin statement he and Kim signed in Singapore didn’t actually commit either of them to do anything concrete. But besotted by self-belief, Trump bragged as if peace were already in the bag. He and Kim had a relationship, and that sufficed.
Even after the Hanoi debacle, Trump still reckons diplomacy is ongoing. On May 20 he told Fox News that Kim didn’t offer enough. Yet Pyongyang has always insisted on a step by step process, not the absurd all-or-nothing ultimatum that John Bolton foisted on Trump in Hanoi.
Trump’s wider self-deception beggars belief. In the same interview he claimed that “[North Korea] haven’t had any tests over the last two years – zero.” (In fact Pyongyang’s last ICBM test was not quite 18 months ago. In words as with missiles, accuracy matters.)
Zero tests? So Kim’s latest volleys – the Supreme Leader personally supervised both – didn’t happen? On May 10 Trump dismissed this as “very standard stuff … they’re short-range and I don’t consider that a breach of trust at all.”
He reiterated this nonchalance in Japan recently – unlike his host, prime minister Shinzo Abe, who voiced “great regret” at these launches. That’s an understatement, but Abe has softened his hard line in hopes of a summit of his own with Kim – though that seems a very long shot.
A reality check is needed here. Even from across the wide Pacific, Trump’s complacency is short-sighted. In Tokyo or Seoul, both too close for comfort to Pyongyang, the fact that Kim has somehow built or acquired a knock-off of Russia’s Iskander – a smart SRBM, able to elude the South’s new THAAD U.S. missile defense system – is far from ‘standard’. It’s scary.
Yet Seoul too is in denial. After the North’s first test on May 4, the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) hastily retracted their initial claim that this was a missile, preferring to say ‘projectile.’
Similarly, after the second test on May 9, swiftly identified by the Pentagon and analysts as a ballistic missile, the JCS still refused – like Trump – to use the B word. (UN resolutions ban all BM activity by North Korea, whether long range or short). The South’s military claimed to be still checking the technical details, but this looks more like heads burrowing in the sand.
That ostrich pose is Seoul’s general posture. Yet Moon Jae-in does deserve some sympathy. A veteran of South Korea’s earlier ‘sunshine’ policy, he has consistently sought dialogue with the North – unlike the wildly mercurial Trump, who swung from threatening “fire and fury” in 2017 to a weird bromance with the dictator he formerly mocked as “little rocket man.”
Unlike the vapid U.S.-DPRK process, the two Koreas really seemed to be getting somewhere. Last year, besides bringing Trump and Kim together, Moon crafted two meaty inter-Korean accords.
Moreover, implementation began right away. Sports exchanges, family reunions, talks on economic cooperation, joint inspections of the North’s decrepit roads and railways, a no-fly zone and tension reduction at the border: It was all happening, and hopes ran high.
That was then. Now it has ground to a halt. Kim had pledged to meet Moon “often” in 2019, but instead he stomped off the field and was shunning Seoul even before the Hanoi debacle.
Peace in Korea. Remember that? It was great while it lasted
Inter-Korean meetings have ceased, publicly at least (the Blue House hints at back channels, but who knows?). Southern NGOs, eager to help, report that Pyongyang no longer replies to faxes or picks up the phone.
Some were due to meet Northern counterparts in Shenyang in northeast China on May 23, but the North abruptly canceled some of those talks at short notice.
Worse, it is hurling insults. On April 12 Kim sneered at Seoul’s “meddlesome” mediation – which got him his two summits with Trump – just as Moon returned from Washington.
Even more ungratefully, one Northern website dismissed the South’s recent offer of food aid – desperately needed, according to the UN – as “empty rhetoric and boastful behavior.”
Yet Moon acts as if all this is just a blip. In April he called for a fourth summit, “regardless of venue.” Yet if reciprocity has any meaning, then Kim needs to come to Seoul as he promised to do. His late father Kim Jong Il promised too, but no Northern leader has ever yet done so.
HYPE WITHOUT SUBSTANCE
Not that slackening the conditions cut any ice. Kim remains deaf to all entreaties from Seoul. What is baffling is the Moon administration’s refusal to accept this (admittedly unwelcome) reality. Instead, they keep clutching at straws and talking up non-existent summit prospects.
This bad habit began last fall. No sooner had Moon got back from Pyongyang in September than the Blue House and ROK media began chattering excitedly about Kim Jong Un’s return visit to Seoul. This prattle reached a crescendo in December. Did he come? Like hell he did.
Learning nothing from this egg on face, half a year on they’re still at it. On May 16 the Blue House claimed that talks are being held towards a fourth inter-Korean summit.
Really? Three weeks later, Cheong Wa Dae still professed to be “cautiously optimistic.” But on what basis? Far from talks being ongoing, this time they admitted they were “cautiously” – that word again – “attempting to contact” the North. In other words, not yet at first base.
By June 10, the Blue House finally conceded that the by then much-hyped idea of somehow squeezing in a North-South summit in the next two weeks, before Trump visits Seoul after the G20 meetings in Osaka, “realistically … appears to be difficult.”
So it was just hot air. Yet dammit, they’re still not giving up. In contorted double negatives, the (as always anonymous) spokesperson insisted: “We cannot say for sure that an inter-Korean summit will not be held in late June. Negotiations can be immediately held once conditions are met.”
If reciprocity has any meaning, then Kim needs to come to Seoul as he promised to do
One takes the point that you can’t publicize secret behind-the-scenes contacts, for fear of jeopardizing them – as has happened in the past. And for sure, a fresh inter-Korean summit would be a very good thing. And sometimes events do develop rapidly.
What makes no sense is to count your chickens before the eggs are even laid, never mind hatched. If nothing is actually happening, why pretend otherwise and raise false hopes?
The unification ministry seems to have a subtly different hymn sheet. Kim Yeon-chul, the newish MOU, said rather delphically on June 9 that “neither optimism nor pessimism are currently warranted” regarding a fourth North-South summit.
You know what? I’m plumping for pessimism.
Sure, I’d rejoice if I am proven wrong. But this strange mood of denial in both the White and Blue Houses is no way to build peace in Korea. We need to start by admitting where we are – in limbo, back to square one.
And then we need to take a deep breath and start all over again, with realism and honesty.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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