North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in recently completed a historic summit in which they vowed to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and formally end its state of war.
U.S. President Donald Trump used the opportunity to take credit while trashing his White House predecessor, blaming the Obama administration for allowing the North Korean situation to escalate and labeling former Secretary of State John Kerry the “worst negotiator” he’d “ever seen.”
Only months ago Trump and Kim were trading insults and threats as the North conducted a series of tests to demonstrate its burgeoning nuclear and missile capabilities.
Perhaps Trump’s bluster played a role in Kim’s newfound commitment to peace. If so, good for the POTUS.
Yet North Korea has a history of careening from aggression to diplomacy in order to win concessions and buy time. And past promises to end the North’s nuclear program have not materialized.
While it’s difficult to analyze the thought process of the mercurial and highly secretive Kim, there’s a strong possibility Trump’s hard line was instrumental in bringing other key players to the table.
North Korean capacity to strike the U.S. directly is growing but remains limited. Yet a full-scale assault on South Korea is quite achievable and potentially devastating.
South Koreans understandably have little enthusiasm for becoming proxy targets in a U.S.-North Korea dispute, and many were terrified by the bouts of reciprocal saber rattling between the two nations last year.
As such, Moon was likely particularly receptive to Kim’s ovations even given the regime’s history of failing to follow through.
Chief North Korean ally China would almost certainly prefer to avoid a nuclear engagement on its border along with the risk of being drawn into a larger conflict with the U.S.
Chinese pressure on North Korea surely played a role in Kim’s apparent change of heart, something Trump highlighted in a recent tweet.
"Please do not forget the great help that my good friend, President Xi (Jinping) of China, has given to the United States, particularly at the Border of North Korea,” Trump said. “Without him it would have been a much longer, tougher, process!"
Xi may be a friend when it suits Trump’s purposes, but China remains an emerging superpower and key U.S. rival on many issues.
South Korea and the U.S. have enjoyed a long military and economic alliance. There is a sizable U.S. military presence on and surrounding the peninsula, and the two nations frequently engage in joint military maneuvers.
While these activities are ostensibly geared entirely towards the North Korean threat, they also serve as a demonstration of U.S. power and resolve while likely providing cover for a bit of espionage, all in China’s back yard.
Chinese interest in a North-South détente no doubt goes beyond neighborliness as they envision a less prominent U.S. role in the region resulting.
Trump plans to meet with Kim, perhaps as soon as later this month. That meeting, and the subsequent diplomatic initiatives, will be fraught with peril.
He’ll need to make clear that any peace accord will need to include verifiable concessions by the North and continued U.S. military and economic alliance with the South.
Yet an overly heavy-handed approach could cause Moon to view the U.S. as an impediment to peace rather than a broker of it.
This could potentially push the South towards closer ties with Beijing and frostier relations with Washington.
During his presidential campaign, Trump sold himself as a master negotiator. He’ll soon have a high-stakes opportunity to prove his case.
Tim Ackarman, a regular columnist for the Globe Gazette, lives in Miller.