After a fearful year of brinksmanship, the recent summit between South Korean president Moon Jae-In and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un was a beautiful moment of hope. The two leaders stepped back and forth over the Military Demarcation Line between their two countries and shared Korean cold noodles brought specially from a famed Pyongyang restaurant. They planted a tree and fed it water from two rivers, North Korea’s Taedong and South Korea’s Han.
Given the number of nuclear tests and missile launches the north has conducted since the last summit between two Korean leaders, all the way back in 2007, the spectacle of Moon and Kim smiling as they crossed their shared border has sent a wave of relief around the world. It seems Moon Jae-In’s gamble of inviting North Korea to the winter Olympics has paid off in spades.
Everyone has now returned safely home, but the near euphoria is still palpable. With reports that Kim apparently told his southern counterpart that giving up his nuclear weapons is very much on the table, many are staring to hail this as a new era in inter-Korean relations. Some appear to already believe that the technically-still-underway Korean War is just about over – and Donald Trump in particular is already claiming credit.
The idea that Trump is solely responsible for this breakthrough is, of course, preposterous. If anyone deserves primary credit it’s Moon, who staked his political career on engaging the North Koreans during the Olympics. But soon, Trump will have a chance to show his mettle, as his administration is busy preparing its own summit with the North Korean leader.
It’s certainly too early to nominate Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. But if his administration does somehow manage to normalise relations on the Korean peninsula, it will be important to ask why he has apparently succeeded where many others – including Nobel Peace Prize laureates Barack Obama, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung – have floundered. Unfortunately for Trump’s self-esteem, top of the list of reasons must be not his own geopolitical nous, but circumstance.
Right place, right time
It’s undeniable that throughout 2017, the Trump administration was heavily involved in pressing for extensive sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. Those sanctions focused on blocking most of the north’s conventional trade links, a move which had not previously been attempted in earnest. But the reality is that the Trump administration inherited a political situation that was, as renowned conflict professor I William Zartmann would say, “ripe”.
Sometimes called “hurting stalemate”, a “ripe moment” in a conflict comes when the suffering and costs faced by one or both sides force open a window of opportunity. This is what has happened on the Korean peninsula. For all the nuclear breakthroughs, the north’s economy has very little room to breathe thanks to the sanctions.
South Korea and Japan are now facing a North Korea that is equipped with a broadly credible nuclear deterrent and Trump’s mixed messages towards them have confused their once dependable security relationships with the US. It is at just these sort of moments that breakthroughs in seemingly intractable conflicts are often made.
North Korea is seen very differently today than it was in the aftermath of the Cold War. Back then, it was a famine-stricken country apparently on the verge of collapse, supposedly led by an irrational tyrant, and probably bluffing about its nuclear machinations. For all those reasons, talking to it wasn’t a priority. Instead, patience was needed. In the case of the Obama administration, this principle was revived and taken to the extreme as a policy of “strategic patience”. And if stopping the north from going nuclear was the intention, that approach backfired spectacularly – Pyongyang was ultimately simply not interested in dropping its guns just to get to a negotiating table.
Only now, after a programme of tests that got it admitted to the world’s exclusive nuclear club, is North Korea ready to talk openly with the US about a dramatic change of course. So what kind of talks will these be?
Just another deal
In his own telling, Trump is a man who likes to talk and make deals – almost regardless of who is on the other side of the table. That said, judging by his first year or so in office, he is less interested in making new deals than in leaving or threatening to leave existing ones, notably the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iranian nuclear deal.
But a deal is not enough – what is needed is confidence building, a far more complex task. It demands clear communication lines between all sides as all the actors remove their threat mechanisms and replace them with new connections that ultimately become more important. For that to happen, Trump and his allies will have to accept the fact that, by virtue of its nuclear know-how, North Korea is no longer weak. It will not accept anything that will force it to disarm first.
Making deals with the North Koreans is in fact relatively easy, and many have been struck before. Among them are the 1953 Korean Armistice; the 1972 North-South Joint Statement, which set out principles for reunification; the 1994 Agreed Framework, which provided a complex mechanism to manage the north’s nuclear energy needs; the 2000 North-South Joint Declaration, which sought to end the armistice; the 2007 Inter-Korean Eight-Point Agreement, calling for new peace talks; and the 2012 Leap Day agreement with the US, where Pyongyang agreed to stop its missile and nuclear tests.
That the list of deals is this long proves that adding yet another entry won’t in itself mean much. Trump needs to offer the north, not just a friendly handshake, but concrete measures and guarantees – and those will have to go well beyond what we’ve seen in the last week.
Turning off the speakers that blast propaganda across the border from both sides is a nice gesture, while reopening a telephone hotline between the two Koreas is useful – and sending Mike Pompeo (now Trump’s secretary of state) to Pyongyang paved the way for further discussion. But none of these steps has cost any of the parties anything substantial. More importantly, the north has not publicly promised to unconditionally renounce its nuclear weapons programme – it has offered to dismantle the programme, but only if the US promises never to invade it.
Even if a concrete deal of some kind is struck, the test will be whether, once it is done, the US can project the confidence and stability needed for all parties to actually fulfil their commitments. And that would demand the Trump administration exercise clear, stable leadership of a calibre it has yet to muster on any front.