Snowballing peace with North Korea

South Korea’s president can be credited for the small steps of peace leading up to the second US-North Korea summit. He may have created a virtuous circle of trust.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in cross the border line at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone last April.

One way to end the nuclear-tipped military tension on the Korean Peninsula, according to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, is to think ceaselessly about small steps toward peace. He calls this turning snowballs into a snowman. That’s good advice as President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un prepare to meet for their second summit on Feb. 27-28. 

The summit, which is being held in Vietnam, comes with low expectations that Mr. Kim is ready to take concrete steps toward giving up his nuclear weapons or missiles. This is the conclusion of Mr. Trump’s own intelligence chiefs. Kim may make some concessions, as he did in last June’s meeting in Singapore. But North Korea has a long record of retreating or cheating on nuclear agreements.

Mr. Moon suggests creating a mood for peace as much as the means for peace. Threats by the US or offering economic incentives to the North can only go so far. What’s needed is a virtuous circle of trust, starting with the two Koreas. After all, it is their unresolved war from the early 1950s that must first be officially ended.

An emerging trust between the two Koreas began in July 2017, when Moon offered to hold talks soon after becoming president. At the time, the North was busy testing atomic weapons and new missiles while Mr. Trump was making threats. In December, Moon suggested the two countries field a joint team for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Kim jumped on the idea and thus began an unprecedented era of warming cross-border relations. The opening then led to Trump agreeing to the June summit with Kim.

Last year, while Kim and Trump met once, Kim and Moon met three times. The two have reduced tensions in the demilitarized zone, through such actions as removing some guard posts and land mines. In August, many Korean families split by the long divide were able to meet. This week, a group of about 250 South Korean religious and civic leaders visited the North. And this Friday, the two Koreas are expected to submit a joint bid to the International Olympic Committee to co-host the 2032 Summer Games.

Inter-Korea reconciliation, says Moon, is now the “driving force” behind international efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Or as a former US negotiator with North Korea, Christopher Hill, put it, “I think the game has changed somewhat under Moon Jae-in.”

Moon is not expected to be at the coming talks in Hanoi. But his peace moves may very well influence the negotiations. They could be the snowballs in the room.

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