On Friday, the leaders of North and South Korea, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, will meet at the truce village of Panmunjom for a historic summit that many Koreans believe could end the war and state of belligerence that has plagued both sides of the Korean Peninsula since the late 1940s.
Kim’s symbolic crossing of the border into the South could also pave the way for another precedent-shattering event: the planned summit in early June between Kim Jong-un and President Trump. If all goes well in the consecutive summits, the talks could end the threat of war—nuclear war—between North Korea and the United States and usher in a new era of peace in Northeast Asia.
To Korea hands who have seen tensions rise and fall over the years, the upcoming summits are a remarkable sign of progress toward ending a North Korean nuclear and missile program that started in the late 1980s to create a deterrent against the United States and succeeded in 2017 beyond anyone’s dreams in Pyongyang or Washington.
“Last year, the situation on the Korean Peninsula was the most tense, the most negative, I’d ever seen, so these are good, important, impressive steps,” Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and UN ambassador who has been to North Korea on trouble-shooting missions eight times, told The Nation. “The president took a gamble, but it’s a risk worth taking.”
Richardson, who was interviewed during an arms-control conference in Washington, said he was unsure whether the Kim regime would eventually give up all of its weapons.
“Possible, not probable,” he said. But “they will restrict them, curb their use, and put a freeze on missiles and nuclear weapons. Any kind of progress that defuses the military confrontation is worth the summit.” Like many analysts, he gave credit for the thaw to Moon Jae-in and his Olympic diplomacy. “The reason for the change, in my judgment, is the president of South Korea.”
David Kang, professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and director of USC’s Korean Studies Institute, expressed amazement at the turn of events.
“If I had said in December, at the height of the worries about a ‘bloody nose’ strike and all that, that within four months we would not only be having summits between North and South Korea, China and the US, but that Kim would have publicly said he doesn’t need to test and publicly floating the idea of denuclearization—well, there’s no possible way people would have taken it seriously,” he told The Nation.
The global interest in the meetings at Panmunjom—which will be televised live to the world via the South Korean government’s summit internet portal—increased over the past week as North Korea, in its preparatory meetings with Moon’s government, made several critical decisions and concessions designed to enhance the atmosphere for his upcoming talks with Moon and then Trump.
First came the stunning disclosure in the media, later confirmed by the South Korean government, that Moon and Kim will announce an end to the Korean War and release a joint statement pledging, at some time in the future, to sign a treaty to transform the 1953 armistice agreement into a lasting peace.
Although such a document will require the involvement of the United States and China, which along with North Korea are signatories to the armistice, it’s a crucial step toward creating a true peace process. “Ending the state of conflict is the core of the whole thing,” John Delury of Seoul’s Yonsei University told Bloomberg. “Peace is as complicated as denuclearization.”
South Korea—which did not sign the 1953 armistice—was cautious to say that any declaration of the end of the 1950–53 Korean War must be tied to an agreement on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. “Without the progress of (the North’s) denuclearization, it would not be realistic to discuss ways to establish peace,” a South Korean official told Yonhap, the government-owned wire service.
To make that possible, Moon revealed on April 19 that North Korea had dropped demands it has made in the past that the United States remove its 28,500 troops from South Korea as the price for a peace deal. Instead, Moon said, it would accept security guarantees and an end to what it has long called America’s “hostile policy.” Kim’s shift “has been confirmed, so that is what is making talks with the U.S. possible,” Moon said, according to a statement released by his office.
In fact, accepting an American military presence in Korea is a topic that’s been discussed in negotiations before, but Kim’s concession still marks a huge change as Kim prepares to do away with a nuclear and missile deterrence system designed to counter the overwhelming US military presence in South Korea, Japan, Okinawa, and Guam. Moreover, until January, many US officials and think-tank analysts were saying that the purpose of Kim’s nuclear-weapons program was to force the United States to withdraw its troops and force the South to accept unification under Northern terms.
But the dramatic pre-summit statements from Kim were just a lead-in to his public statements last Saturday, when he said he had suspended all nuclear, intermediate-range, and ICBM missile tests; would soon close his only nuclear-testing site; and was seeking to “make positive contributions to the building of the world free from nuclear weapons.”
The declaration, which was made at a meeting of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party and broadcast on North Korean state media, was Kim’s first acknowledgment to the North Korean people that he has shifted from war preparations to a peace process.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, speaking to The Wall Street Journal, called the decision a “very significant pledge” and called on the United States and other countries to respond by asking Pyongyang to sign and ratify the international nuclear test-ban treaty.
Kim’s statements also won strong praise from President Trump, who all last week tweeted a steady barrage of hopeful messages about his dealings with North Korea. “This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress!” he said after Kim announced the nuclear test suspension. “Look forward to our Summit.”
The shift was also welcomed by people who watched with increasing worry last year as North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests led Trump on several occasions to threaten the very existence of North Korea.
“We are so far from where we were in December,” said USC’s Kang. “That doesn’t mean that it will all be solved—that’s not the way it works. But the idea that we’re anywhere near even talking about these things is a huge step forward for all of us. And that’s why you do diplomacy—to figure out what’s realistic and what’s not. I’m totally in favor.”
Nobody knows the difficulties more than South Korea. In order for the North to actually achieve denuclearization, “there are still many hurdles that North Korea and the international community must clear,” the progressive Hankyoreh newspaper stated on Tuesday.
First, it said, North Korea must impose a permanent freeze on its nuclear weapons and missile tests, “and then take steps to disable and dismantle its nuclear facilities. After this, North Korea will have to inform the international community of each stage (freezing, disabling and dismantling), and the international community will have to verify these stages by sending inspectors.”
In return, of course, the North would expect the United States to withdraw its sanctions, agree not to deploy strategic weapons such as nuclear-armed ships and planes in Korea, and to move toward full diplomatic and economic normalization between the two countries. But that won’t happen until Kim Jong-un has started to dismantle his nuclear program, a senior Trump official told the Journal. The United States, the official said Sunday, “will not be making substantial concessions, such as lifting sanctions, until North Korea has substantially dismantled its nuclear programs.”
That negotiating process has apparently been discussed by Kim and Trump through a US envoy dispatched to Pyongyang by the president. Last week, the White House disclosed the stunning news that CIA director Mike Pompeo had flown to North Korea over the Easter weekend and met face-to-face with Kim Jong-un—the highest-level contact between the two countries since 2000.
During their discussions, the 34-year-old “supreme leader” assured Pompeo—who is about to become secretary of state—that he was indeed willing to discuss his country’s denuclearization with President Trump during the summit. Pompeo’s meeting “went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed,” Trump tweeted.
A few days earlier, Pompeo, with his trip to Pyongyang clearly in mind, had told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he was “optimistic” that Trump and Kim would be having the conversation “that will set us down the course of achieving a diplomatic outcome” to the long-running crisis. This week, the Japanese newspaper Asahi added new details, reporting that Kim “conveyed to Pompeo his willingness to completely dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program, without asking for the withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula.”
Asahi also reported that a US official, most likely from the CIA, remained in Pyongyang “in an apparent attempt to coordinate the upcoming summit and maximize the results of Pompeo and Kim’s meeting.” If those reports are true, Trump may have good reason for his optimism Tuesday, when he told reporters that Kim has “really been very open and I think very honorable.” He added that the North Koreans “are pressing for talks to begin immediately.”
But Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang also solidified the perception, which I outlined recently in The Nation, that the intelligence services in the United States and the two Koreas are running the early stages of the diplomacy in Korea. “It seems there’s a new channel between US and North Korean intelligence,” Richardson said in his remarks to the Arms Control Association last week. “I’m all for the meeting between the CIA director and Kim,” he said, but he expressed concerns about the eclipse of the State Department, saying, “I regret that.”
To nearly all of the White House press corps and the Washington punditry class, however, the dizzying events in Korea over the past three months are just another sign of North Korean intransigence and President Trump’s gullibility.
Since the first news emerged of Pompeo’s trip and Kim’s concessions, the reporters who cover North Korea for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other mainstream outlets sought out their regular “expert” sources from think tanks and previous administrations to pour cold water on the idea that North Korea has offered anything substantial to either South Korea or the United States. What emerged was another classic “Washington Consensus” on a key foreign-policy issue, led by people who have often been wrong on Korea.
One of the worst offenders was Mark Landler, a White House reporter for the Times. In successive articles last week, Landler tapped into his thin source base—which included officials with Japan’s right-wing Shinzo Abe government—to argue that Kim was only “posturing” and “has no real intention of acceding to demands that he relinquish his nuclear weapons.” The stories were written with Choe Sang-hun, the Times’s Korea correspondent, and Landler’s contributions seemed designed contradict the positive take from South Korea that Choe has been consistently reporting.
In both stories, Landler’s money quotes from Washington were from Evan Medeiros, “a former senior Asia adviser to President Barack Obama” (he is also a managing director with the for-profit Eurasia Group, which is often hostile to North Korea). On the issue of US troops, Medeiros described Kim’s offer to Moon as “a classic, deft North Korean maneuver, which puts us at a disadvantage and makes us look like bad guys if we reject it.” Two days later, in response to Kim’s nuclear-test freeze, Landler quoted Meidoros as saying that the North Koreans are “doing a great job of appearing reasonable, but…positioning themselves to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state in the future.”
In contrast to this utter pessimism, the article ended with Choe’s quote from a Korean analyst in Seoul, who argues that Kim’s offer “means that North Korea is willing to give up an ICBM capability that threatens the United States” and is therefore “good news for the Trump administration.” The Times’s deft editing and the contradictory headline—Kim will “give a little [and] gain a lot”—sends a signal that, despite what the South Koreans say, Americans should be wary of negotiations. (Landler also maligned the importance of a Korea peace treaty, a position I critiqued in a series of tweets over the weekend.)
The Washington Post painted a similarly dismal picture, saying that Kim’s weapons freeze had elicited “considerable skepticism among North Korea experts.” Its lead quote was from Benjamin Silberstein, a North Korea “researcher” at the University of Pennsylvania who is affiliated with the center-right Foreign Policy Research Institute. “There is nothing in North Korea’s statement that signals a willingness to give up their nukes,” he said.
Abraham Denmark, a former Defense Department official and media favorite from the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute, is another common media source. On Friday, he tweeted that Kim’s statements on freezing his nuclear and missile tests were “certainly a positive signal, but not a game changer. No mention of denuclearization, and easily reversible.”
That line—“easily reversible”—quickly became a meme for critics of Trump’s diplomacy and was repeated dozens of times on social media and in television interviews. Even the left-liberal Guardian cast doubt on the outcome, reporting from “experts” who “said that the North Korean leader could be deftly manoeuvring Trump into a trap.”
The new Washington Consensus on North Korea was summed up on Sunday morning by NBC correspondent Chuck Todd. Kim “seems to be giving very little, but making it seem like he’s giving a lot,” Todd told The Today Show. Later, on Meet the Press, he declared that Kim has “done temporary everything, but he’s not made a declaration of denuclearization.…We’ve given him the meeting [with Trump] and that in itself is a huge gift.” The implication: Kim has conceded nothing, yet Trump has given him everything.
That prompted a reply from Trump himself, who ridiculed Todd in a tweet and later added, “Funny how all of the Pundits that couldn’t come close to making a deal on North Korea are now all over the place telling me how to make a deal!”
Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ and a lifelong peace activist, found herself agreeing with Trump on the press coverage—a situation she called “bizarre.” She disagreed sharply with the idea that North Korea has conceded nothing, pointing out in a tweet that Kim “has agreed to freeze tests of nukes and missiles, denuclearization, and to allow [30,000] US troops to remain in Korea.”
Kevin Gray, a specialist on North Korea’s political economy at the University of Sussex, said the media response to Kim’s summitry reflected the pundits’ “implicit support for the Trump administration taking a maximalist strategy towards the negotiations.”
Their hard-line views, he told The Nation, “push the view that North Korea must first commit to and even carry out complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization before any concessions are offered by the US in return. The problem is, that is the line that has underpinned the failure of US policy toward North Korea for decades.”
Gray, who has been observing Washington’s obsession with Kim Jong-un as a visiting fellow at the Wilson Center in DC, said a final agreement could only come about “through a series of mutual concessions that serve to build mutual trust. The constant barrage of criticism that North Korea’s intentions haven’t changed simply creates an atmosphere that is not conducive to this goal.”
But as Friday approached, the atmosphere in South Korea was charged and hopeful, as thousands of people flocked to Imjingak, the public park at the border between North and South Korea. Despite what the US pundits have to say, a solid 80 percent of South Koreans support Moon and Kim signing a peace agreement to end the Korean War.