Time to Embrace a Genuine Middle Ground in North Korea
There is a lot of posturing occurring in advance of the highly anticipated meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un in May. Kim has deftly raised his profile with his meetings in Beijing and with representatives from South Korea. If he is to be taken at his word, he appears to be prepared to discuss either freezing his nuclear weapons program where it is or completely dismantling it. For his part, Trump has signalled a willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue, while at the same time drawing a hard line on the denuclearization issue. There is major incongruity between both of their positions, however.
Kim may be taking a page directly from the playbook of his father—Kim Jong-Il—who concluded Six-Party talks and made an agreement to freeze nuclear weapons production, only to fail to abide by it. If so, then this entire process is likely to be little more than a charade. It is also of course possible that Kim is entirely serious. He must be as tired as his countrymen are of living through sanctions and perpetual isolation. Perhaps he has finally had enough. However, to believe he has, would fly in the face of decades of consistent behaviour with the Kim regime.
It really is hard to imagine that, in the course of a few months, Kim has magically transformed himself from an outcast and bad boy, firmly ensconced in his role as a long-time member of the Axis of Evil (from the West’s perspective), into a romping global peacemaker, intent only on doing the right thing, and willfully kowtowing to the West’s every demand of him. One minute he is rattling his nuclear sabre with fury and the next minute he wants to join hands and sing kumbaya? Really?
On the other hand, some fundamental dynamics have in fact changed. Beijing has imposed truly significant trade restrictions on the Hermit Kingdom in recent months, and the personal relationship between Kim and Xi (to the extent that there is one) has been strained. Trump’s brash bravado has also undoubtedly also had an impact, breaking with the well-worn American tradition of speaking softly and carrying a small stick where Pyongyang is concerned. And, of course, there is a desire from South Korean President Moon to (once again) try to find a peaceful solution to the North Korea question. All three dynamics may have come together to entice Kim to change his tune.
If we assume, then, that Kim is coming to the table genuinely intent on radically altering his country’s place among the family of nations (and, seeing will indeed be believing), then both he and Trump will need to enter negotiations with the understanding that any bargaining positions either may have had that are seen as “extreme” by the other, and which were crafted to either posture ahead of negotiations, or were designed for the benefit of public consumption, are unlikely to result in a solution. Both of them will need to embrace the art of the deal.
Kim really will need to consider shelving or dismantling his nuclear weapons, but that is merely a starting point. No doubt, the American (and ultimately, Chinese, South Korean, Japanese, and Russian) negotiators will want to see Kim stop engaging in cyberattacks and the plethora of illegal activities the North Korean regime has become so adept at over the decades.
They will also want to see Pyongyang join the family of nations agreeing in advance to abide by basic principles of international law and warfare. And they will want to see evidence that Kim will treat his people with dignity and basic human rights.
Trump must realize that he cannot get to the finish line with Kim without agreeing to a similar list of demands. He will need to be flexible on how and when Kim either freezes or dismantles his nuclear arsenal. Kim will undoubtedly want the US to agree to remove its troops from South Korea, and to cease its annual war games with Seoul. This would imply a radical transformation of the security posture the US and South Korea have known since the 1950s. Kim will probably also demand assurances about being allowed to remain in power and never to be invaded as long as he and his successors abide by the terms of the agreement. Equally importantly, Kim, Trump and Moon need to find a way to formally end the Korean War, which was never done.
There is little point in embarking on such a grandiose path unless all sides are realistic and willing to make significant concessions. It took two generations to get to where we are on the North Korea issue.
Surely, even a dealmaker like Trump does not believe a weekend of talks will turn it all around with the snap of a finger. One thing going for both Kim and Trump is that they have large egos, which, no doubt, will require that a deal be done. Neither wants to have to leave the meeting in failure.
They both want to go down in history as the men who saved the world from nuclear catastrophe and did what no one else had, or could have, done.
This article was originally posted in The Sunday Guardian.