Reasons for hope eclipse cynicism

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There were talks and toasts, border crossings and backslaps – even a joint tree-watering. Gasps and occasional applause broke out among the 3,000-strong press corps assembled to cover the Inter-Korean summit as they watched Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in – two leaders of warring states – ignite what looks very much like a nascent bromance.

So, the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit was rich in symbolism. Was it rich in substance?

In terms of inter-Korean relations, yes. Agreements to establish a cross-border communications body; to continue the two leaders’ relationship and dialogue past the summit; to bring a halt to the military clashes that occasionally disturb the de facto peace on the Korean Peninsula’s de jure state of war; to reunite divided families; to establish inter-Korean communication links toward a day when Koreans, Northern or Southern, can cross the Demilitarized Zone: All these are positive developments.

What did not feature much in the powwow and subsequent declaration was the big-ticket item, the grim scythe that hangs over the flashpoint peninsula and casts a long, dark shadow over its neighbors: North Korea’s nuclear arms.

While the Panmunjom Declaration committed all parties to “total denuclearization” – a stark statement indeed – there was no detail. And while Moon mentioned it, it was telling that Kim, in his various comments during Friday’s numerous speaking ops, did not.

So, are we trapped in déjà vu? Doomed to repeat the boom-bust, hope-despair cycle that we have seen after all previous diplomatic breakthroughs, and the last two inter-Korean summits?

According to many, the answer is “yes.” Multiple pundits – including some very smart ones whose work appears in Asia Times – are convinced that Kim will never give up the weapons that guarantee his regime against invasion, and which grant his wobbly state a voice in global affairs.

They may be right. But – and this is a very big “but” – now, more than ever, the various moving parts in this long-simmering crisis are coming into synch, drawn into orbit by a gravitational pull generated by the crisis itself, the personalities and policies of key players, and, perhaps, good fortune.

The two key allies in this drama, Moon and US President Donald Trump, are both in the early stages of their terms. The South Korean and US electoral cycles have granted a three-year window of opportunity. Hence we should not see a repeat of the 2007 summit, when Roh Moo-hyun, in the closing months of his term as South Korean president, negotiated a decent deal (which was resurrected on Friday) that his successor declined to follow up.

Moreover, they appear to be aligned on policy. A Moon adviser confessed last week that Moon, when first meeting Trump, tried to present a detailed game plan for the peninsula: Trump had no interest. Moon and his advisers subsequently discovered that the way to enlist Trump was to praise him – and that is the approach being taken.

Cynics expect Kim to drive a wedge between Trump and Moon – but equally, these divergent approaches may work in tandem: Seoul as good cop, Washington as bad cop

For different reasons – Moon, as a conviction politician, is both anti-nuclear and pro-rapprochement with North Korea, while Trump wants a landmark foreign policy win that evaded his predecessors – both want denuclearization and a peninsular peace regime. Hence we should not see the Kim Dae-jung-George W Bush policy chasm that undermined the previous “Sunshine Policy.”

Yet, while aligned, they have different approaches. Trump is a hardliner; he has written any concessions out of America’s script. Moon is a gentler soul, and may offer Kim some concessions. Cynics expect Kim to drive a wedge between the two – but equally, these divergent approaches may work in tandem: Seoul as good cop, Washington as bad cop.

Then there is China. Long the ally, benefactor and lifeline of North Korea, cross-border leakage has undermined international sanctions for a decade. Yet now China is applying sanctions more firmly than ever before. Perhaps Beijing is fed up with its unruly ally. Perhaps Trump persuaded Xi Jinping to apply pressure. Perhaps Beijing was truly alarmed at the possibility of war in Korea.

For Kim, China is critical. He may be facing internal pressures. If, as experts in the South anticipate, his forex reserves run dry by the end of the year, he may be unable to pay off his elite supporters. That places him in dangerous territory. Moreover, there are signals that North Korea – and South Korea, too – was truly alarmed – or convinced – by Trump’s warmongering bluster last year. (Was it bluster?) Given these two issues, Kim’s “charm offensive” may be motivated by fear.

Alternatively, he has (according to most analyses) a plentiful enough supply of fissile materials to make up a credible nuclear deterrent. Moreover, he halted his ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) tests last November on the cusp of success: All he needs now before he has the full package is a re-entry vehicle and targeting devices. The fact that he halted tests suggests he is in a position of comfort, ready to give negotiations one last chance.

One tool that cynics constantly wield to cast doubt on North Korea’s good faith is the non-mention of sensitive matters in state media. But on Saturday, the full text of the Panmunjom Declaration – including “total denuclearization” – was prominently printed in North Korea’s leading newspaper.

For all these reasons, the stars appear to be coming into alignment. One last issue needs to be addressed: personalities.

This is critical, for in politics – as in all relationships – personalities matter. When a democracy is dealing with a dictatorship, political mechanisms do not synch and may not work. Only when leaders are committed can progress be made. This truism is particularly the case in North Korea, where Kim commands massive power and prestige.

The chemistry between Moon and Kim – handshakes, laughter, their long one-on-one chat, that mutual hug – looks stronger than that between the respective leaders in previous summits in 2000 and 2007

The chemistry between Moon and Kim – handshakes, laughter, their long one-on-one chat, that mutual hug – looks stronger than that between the respective leaders in previous summits in 2000 and 2007. The fact that the two have vowed to continue their bromance, via telephone hotline and another summit this autumn, is hugely positive.

How will Kim deal with Trump? The latter is not cast from the same mold as most politicians/diplomats. Trump’s ego tells him he is a great negotiator, and his blunt manners horrify many. But Kim, the swaggering young dictator, hardly fits the mold of the typical global leader either. If these two face off, man to man, perhaps they can do a deal where more conventional political personalities could not. They might even get along. And both are highly invested in their upcoming summit.

It would be reckless – indeed, stupid – to predict total denuclearization of the peninsula. But there can be good outcomes and negotiated solutions that are not “total.”

North Korea is a state that crushes the human spirit to power: It is perhaps the worst dictatorship on Earth. But after the Iraq debacle, the free world has lost the fortitude to carry out invasions to engineer regime change. Hence South Korea, the US and the wider world need a long-term modus vivendi with North Korea.

And a rare constant in life is change. Kim Jong-un is neither his father nor his grandfather. He stands in the shadow of both, but has installed his own leadership team, purging (indeed, executing) many regime veterans. He is clearly taking the counsel of his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who, it appears, is smart, open-minded and forward thinking. Could Kim become “Kim Xiao-ping,” leading his state out of the cold? Stranger things have happened.

As a journalist, one must listen to all voices. Some of the most informed belong to cynics. But as a resident of Seoul for nigh on two decades; as the father of a Korean daughter; and as a writer who has covered the peninsula’s 20th-century tragedy in some depth, I cannot be totally disengaged.

Optimism is often uninformed; naiveté is dangerous. But at a time when there seems a greater-than-ever possibility of a positive outcome, the process deserves support. And it would be inhuman not to have hope.

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