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25 April 2018

With Jonathan Pearlman

An uncertain handshake with North Korea

This Friday, the leader of South Korea – a sixty-five-year-old former human rights lawyer, elected eleven months ago – will meet his counterpart from North Korea, who is aged thirty-four, thirty-five or thirty-six and may have studied physics, or military affairs, before becoming ruler for life.

It will be a historic meeting, the first in which a North Korean leader will cross to the southern side of the demilitarised zone that separates the two nations. And it could pave the way for a summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, the first involving the leaders of North Korea and the United States. 

But history here is the problem.

While there are prospects of a diplomatic advance – the meeting is expected to be warm and to consider a peace treaty – such prospects are in fact as much a feature of the North Korean impasse as the regular advances in its nuclear missile program. Yet the difficulty of ascertaining North Korea’s intentions will remain. 

In this darkness, history may not prove to be a reliable guide, but there is little else to go by.  

The meeting between South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will be the third such summit since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War; the others were in 2000 and 2007.

It is a promising development: easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula would ripple across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Preliminary discussions between delegations from both sides have resolved, according to South Korea, that the two leaders will publicly shake hands – significantly, this will be televised in North Korea – and will commit to a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War. Talks will occur at a table carefully placed to straddle the border between the two countries.

The lead-up to the summit has been spectacular, including a joint women’s ice hockey team at the South Korea Winter Olympics (it lost all three games), a visit by Moon’s envoys to Pyongyang in March, and Kim’s announcement last week that he will stop nuclear testing and close a testing site. Of course, this is all a welcome change from North Korea’s missiles flying over Japan (in August and September 2017) or its nuclear weapons tests causing earthquake-magnitude tremors (most recently in September 2017).

But Kim’s motivations remain unclear. 

Observers of North Korea have given varied explanations: he may be motivated by North Korea’s ailing economy, which has been weakened by sanctions and a collapse of trade with China; or by his position of strength following the advances in his nuclear program; or by a fear that Trump may attack and that he should buy time until the United States has a new president. 

Unfortunately, the past is clearer: there have been other summits and breakthroughs, always followed by disappointment. 

After the last summit, held in Pyongyang in 2007, South Korea’s President, Roh Moo-hyun, and Kim Jong-il (Kim’s father) committed to ending the conflict and – repeating a pledge from the first summit in 2000 – agreed to work towards a formal peace treaty. “I don’t think there will be problems in the future,” said Roh.

The summit followed several years of international six-party talks, but these soon foundered. North Korea apparently slowed or halted its nuclear program, but there were disputes about the verification process. Pyongyang barred inspectors and restarted its efforts. Missile tests resumed. The six-party talks ended, as did those between Seoul and Pyongyang.

This pattern has extended into the reign of Kim Jong-un.

In February 2012, shortly after he became leader, he reached the so-called Leap Day Deal with the United States to suspend long-range missile launches and nuclear tests in return for food aid. Kim then launched a satellite, which the United States saw as part of its missile program, and the deal came to nothing.

Still, most analysts believe that a deal between Washington and Pyongyang is possible. To work, it would require both sides agreeing to detailed plans for verification and matching rewards for North Korea. The other possible results from a Trump–Kim summit are a deal that lacks such detail and later fails, or no deal at all.

Trump is confident that he knows how to make a deal with Kim. He is also notoriously uninterested in detail, and has limited regard for facts, or history.

If the Trump–Kim meeting proceeds – which is no certainty, and still requires agreement on a location – the Moon–Kim summit on Friday will be seen as a prelude. It is an encouraging development, rare and symbolic, but has the makings of following a history that, so far, has proven sadly predictive.



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