After 12 months of threats and bellicose rhetoric that had almost pushed both the United States and North Korea to the brink, the world awoke Thursday, 8 March, to a historic announcement from Washington, delivered by South Korean National Security Director Chung Eui-Yong, that President Donald Trump had accepted an invitation by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to hold a summit meeting.
The announcement sent shockwaves not only within the United States but also throughout the world.
The South Korean senior official had been in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and held a meeting with Kim Jong-un who extended the highly unexpected invitation.
The South Korean delegation flew to Washington to brief the American president and other senior officials in the administration on the content of their talks with the North Korean leader, including his willingness to discuss the denuclearisation of North Korea against security guarantees, to be agreed upon through negotiations among the concerned parties.
In the meantime, the North would be ready to halt further missile testing while not objecting to regular military exercises between the American and South Korean armies in South Korea.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said Friday, 10 March, such a summit— in case it takes place — would be “remembered as a historic milestone in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula”.
President Moon is scheduled to meet Kim Jong-un in the Demilitarised Zone between the two Koreas in April. It would be the third meeting of its kind.
The first two had taken place in 2000 and 2007 in Pyongyang with Kim’s father, the late Kim Jong-il, who had passed away in 2011.
It would be the first for his successor son, as well as a first for the incumbent South Korean president, who was elected last May, and is considered a progressive move from the South Korean left.
His two predecessors who had met Kim Jong-il were conservatives bent on confronting the North. President Moon has adopted a completely different approach in dealing with Kim Jong-un, and it has paid off.
He persisted in his efforts to reduce tensions and brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula despite the fact that President Trump once accused him of “appeasement”.
President Moon had previously served as chief of staff for former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun from 2003 to 2008, a time when Seoul followed what was known as the “Sunshine Policy” that aspired to engage North Korea in an extensive dialogue, accompanied by humanitarian aid and joint economic projects.
The South Korean president has watched, ever since his election last year, tensions rising to dangerous levels between Washington and Pyongyang with the risks of miscalculation by either party that could lead to total war on the Peninsula that would devastate the two Koreas.
Last September, President Trump warned North Korea of “fire and fury”.
Last August, President Moon reiterated that no one “shall take military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korea’s consent”, and stressed that his country “will prevent war, whatever it takes”. Diplomatically speaking, Seoul has not totally surrendered the future of the two Koreas to the United States.
Upon assuming office, the American president made clear his determination to work for the denuclearisation of North Korea.
In fact, the first overseas trip for General James Mattis, the US secretary of defense, was to South Korea, early last year.
On the other hand, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, had stressed, back then, that the policy of “Strategic Patience” adopted by the Obama administration vis-à-vis the nuclear and missiles programmes of the North Koreans was over.
A position that, surely, led Kim Yong-un to test and perfect the capabilities of his country in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
By the end of 2017, Pyongyang announced that it has the capacity to target the United States with such missiles.
With the spectre of a nuclear confrontation on the horizon in North East Asia and mounting American pressures on China to rein in North Korea, China adopted a very clever approach, both towards the Americans and the North Koreans.
Last April, President Trump had invited Chinese President Xi Jing Ping to his winter mansion at Mar-a-Lago, Florida.
Among the questions discussed was the ambitious North Korean nuclear programme. The American objective was to enlist China, the closest ally to Pyongyang, to exercise pressures on the North to accept the idea of denuclearisation.
The Chinese realised that failing a positive reaction from Kim Jong-un and the continued testing of ICBMs capable of reaching the United States and its closest allies in North East Asia, South Korea and Japan, Washington under Trump would not hesitate to resort to the use of force to bring North Korea to heel.
Some American officials even spoke of “annihilating” the North to bring to a tragic end to the regime in Pyongyang — prospect that runs counter to the national security interests of China, best served by North Korea being a buffer to South Korea and the 28,000 American soldiers deployed in the South.
If North Korea disappeared, these American troops would be stationed close to Chinese borders.
For Beijing, there is no other alternative but to secure North Korea and avoid a devastating American attack on the North.
This explains why the Chinese government voted last year for strident sanctions against Pyongyang in the UN Security Council that targeted, among other things, the export of oil to North Korea and the banning of purchasing coal from the North, a main source of hard currency for the North Koreans.
The Chinese have also grown wary of the intentions of their North Korean allies. However, throughout the exchange of threats between the Americans and the North Koreans, China advised caution and favoured diplomacy as the means to work out political differences between the two belligerents.
It has made its official position quite clear that China would back North Korea if it would ever come under a military attack, but would not support the North in case it would be the aggressor. Mr Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, said the summit would be an “important step in the right direction”, and called on the US and North Korea to “engage in a dialogue sooner rather than later”.
China on Friday, 9 March, urged President Trump and Kim Yong-un to show “political courage” to reduce tensions. It is a very reserved reaction that reflects the high stakes associated with a historic and an unprecedented summit between an American president and a North Korean leader.
From 1953, the year the Korean armistice had gone into effect, no such meeting has ever taken place. The risks of failure associated with it are great, but the opportunities are greater. It’s a risk worth taking for the sake of international peace and security.
Of course, in both the United States and Japan, there is a sense of foreboding as to the true intentions of Kim Jong-un. Mike Pence, the US vice-president, in a statement published Friday, 9 March, said “Our resolve is undeterred and our policy remains the same; all sanctions remain in place and the maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes concrete, permanent and verifiable steps to end their nuclear programme.”
Representative Ed Royce (R-California), chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, stressed in a statement 9 March that the United States “can pursue more diplomacy as we keep applying pressure ounce by ounce”.
He added: “Remember, North Korean regimes have repeatedly used talks and empty promises to extract concessions and buy time. North Korea uses this to advance its nuclear and missile programmes. We have got to break this cycle.”
Hawkish Republicans in the Senate, like Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, is of the same opinion, saying that as the Trump administration “begins to work through the important details of such a meeting, we must continue to apply more pressure to the regime in Pyongyang”. He believes that “scepticism and caution are critical as these discussions continue”.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasised, in his initial reaction to prospect of an American-North Korean summit, that Pyongyang had used past instances of diplomacy to quietly develop its nuclear capabilities and missiles.
He went on to say that talks “for the sake of talks” are meaningless and should never loosen sanctions “just because North Korea is open to talks”. He added that Pyongyang “has to show concrete actions towards denuclearisation by committing to abandon its nuclear programmes via complete verifiable and irreversible means”.
The summit, if it happens, should not be seen as a venue for negotiations, but a historic opportunity to see if the United States and the two Koreas are ready to end the state of war between the North and South, and what conditions are conducive to such an end.
I am afraid discussing the denuclearisation of North Korea, dissociated from transforming the armistice into a peace treaty between Seoul and Pyongyang, would be a non-starter.
Although China would be absent from the American-North Korean summit, if and when it takes place, it would remain a driving force in any future developments concerning peace and security in North East Asia.
Last Friday, 10 March, Chinese President XI Jinping had a phone call with President Trump. The former hailed “the positive attitude” shown by the latter to reach a peaceful solution to the “question of the Korean Peninsula”, according to the official Chinese news agency.
The White House, in a readout on the phone call, said the two leaders agreed to keep sanctions on North Korea in place until Pyongyang agrees to disarm its nuclear weapons in a “verifiable and irreversible manner”.
The question is not, solely, about the true intentions of the North Korean leader in proposing a summit with his American counterpart, but rather, will the United States honour its commitments in any future “historic” deal with the North?
Will the United States accept the reunification of the two Koreas and the complete withdrawal of its troops from the peninsula?
The North Koreans should hedge their bets on the summit.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly