Beyond promise of united Korea, disarmament may depend on Trump

Last week's feel-good summit between the Koreas has led to high expectations for the main event: a meeting between the US and North Korea. Washington holds hopes for a historic breakthrough, but no illusions that progress is inevitable.

Korea Summit Press/AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (r.) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in walk at the border village of Panmunjom in Korea's Demilitarized Zone, April 27.

Last week’s summit between South and North Korea was full of feel-good symbolism. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un grinned and held hands while stepping back and forth into each other’s territory. They planted a tree using water and soil from both sides of the Korean border. They took tea and talked for 30 minutes.

After the meeting was over, North Korea even announced it would shift its time zone to align with that of the South. Mr. Kim had found it a “a painful wrench” to see two clocks showing different times on the wall at the summit venue, North Korean state media said.

This show of apparent fraternity went over very well, in South Korea at least. And intentionally or not, it may have raised world expectations for the upcoming summit between Kim and President Trump. True, North and South Korea were one nation for hundreds of years prior to division at the end of the Korean War. But if they can embrace after decades of enmity, can’t the United States and North Korea strike some sort of tension-lowering nuclear deal?

The problem is that the South-North summit was just the opening act. Any real peace deal for the region will likely need the approval of the US and China, as well as the two Koreas. That would be a complicated negotiation. And it remains unclear what North Korea means when it makes statements about possible “denuclearization.” Even defining that term could occupy negotiators for months, no matter the intent of national leaders.

“Trump and Kim are not going to sit down and do an arms control deal in an afternoon,” says Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Confounding developments

This doesn’t mean the South-North Korea summit wasn’t a big deal. In South Korea, television images of the two leaders interacting transfixed a population that has grown used to the constant threat of hostilities. North Korea state media covered the events at great length, though how the isolated North Korean population reacted remained mostly unknown.

In the US the summit seemed just one piece of a string of North Korea news that’s been more dreamlike by the day. Mr. Trump’s agreement to meet with Kim was a surprise. Developments since have been confounding. Reports from Seoul on Monday, sourced to the South Korean government, said that North Korea’s Kim had agreed to abandon his nuclear weapons if the US agreed to a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War, and promised to not invade North Korea.

“Overall, this is a very positive first step. But the future remains very unclear, and there are innumerable opportunities for all of this to fall apart very rapidly,” writes Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, in a flash analysis of weekend events.

Trump administration officials say they see the possibility of an historic breakthrough, but have no illusions that progress is a foregone conclusion. North Korea and South Korea have had previous hopeful summits that did not in the end change much, noted national security adviser John Bolton in a Sunday interview on Fox News.

“We’ve heard this before,” said Mr. Bolton.

Heavy diplomatic lifting

North and South Korea agreed to pursue this year a peace treaty formally closing the hostilities of the Korean War. But North Korea suggested no timeline for any dismantlement of its nuclear weapons and nuclear development infrastructure. It provided no details on what it means when it talks about a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, or what it wants in terms of the future deployment of US troops in South Korea. 

That leaves a lot of heavy diplomatic lifting for the future, if a US-North Korea accord is actually to be reached.

“The Kim-Moon summit wasn’t even really intended to accomplish much other than serving as an opening salvo,” says retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, senior fellow at the think tank Defense Priorities. “President Trump has the hard job – now he has to get into the nuts and bolts of disarmament.”

One possible problem is that the US and South Korea have different – though complementary – interests in engaging North Korea. President Moon wants to start a process that could lead, in the distance, to reunification. In the short term he’s interested in tension-lowering moves, such as a possible mutual fisheries zone along the Korean borders, and the Korean War peace treaty.

The US, for its part, is interested in those things too, but its primary national interest is the elimination of any nuclear threat to the US homeland or US or allied military forces. Negotiations between the two Koreas, and the US and North Korea, may need to be carefully synchronized to ensure that differences in speed of progress towards different goals don’t become a source of tension between the parties. 

There is also the worry that Trump may not understand, or accept, the tedium of diplomatic processes. His desire for quick, obvious “wins” may push him to premature declarations of victory before details have been delineated and agreed upon.

“It’s just that you would want someone who cared about the process a little bit,” says Mr. Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s so easy to imagine that once they have a ceremony and a nice meal he’s going to lose interest.”

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