“Little Rocket Man.” “Mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” No, these are not kindergarten children teasing each other by calling names. Yes, these are the words from two country leaders. Late last year, the President of the United States (U.S.), Donald Trump and the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, threw verbal fire bombs at each other, creating the atmosphere of a ruined relationship. Yet on March 3, just nine days after the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics closing ceremony concluded, Kim sent an invitation to President Trump to talk. To the world’s surprise, President Trump agreed. Can this be the first step to bringing peace to the Korean peninsula? “
Towards the end of 2017, when North Korea hinted its willingness to participate in the games, a dim shadow was cast over the plans as the North’s nuclear project accelerated. Adding to that, Trump constantly tweeted war-like threats to the North. Yet the international event that holds solidarity, fair play, and the spirit of friendship in the highest esteem has brought several changes to international relations. Without a doubt, the Winter Olympics held in South Korea was a success, as recognized by several foreign media outlets.
South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, praised the events as they led to a possible reconciliation between the two separated Koreas. The joint women’s ice hockey team and the march under one flag for the first time in twelve years appear to have moved the heart of the North’s leader. Moon was delighted as a clear message of peace was conveyed to other countries by presenting a peaceful Olympics and Paralympic Games. Moon continued to show his excitement stating that “A new path is now opening to peace on the Korean Peninsula as they have led to a South-North Korean summit and a North Korea-U.S. summit.”
It is the first time in decades for North Korea to seek negotiations; previously, whenever unfavorable talks towards the North came out, missile threats were the first option. On March 5, astounding progress was made when a South Korean official, Chung Eui-yong, met with Kim in Pyongyang. During the meeting, Chung announced that the leader of North Korea is aware of the fact that, “Routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue.” The session with the South Korean delegate resulted in Kim Jong-un sending out love-calls to the U.S.
It was revealed on March 8 that Trump accepted Kim’s invitation that was delivered by Chung to negotiate over its nuclear program. To this, Trump agreed to meet “Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.” The U.S President did not hide his joy and tweeted, “Great progress is being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!” This rare verbal interaction with the South and North is the first in more than two years—progressing up to an agreement to hold an inter-Korean meeting by April and the very first U.S. and North Korean summit by May.
Falling into the Rabbit Hole
Many experts believe that the North Korean leader’s intentions are still unclear. No one is certain “whether it is Pyongyang’s ploy to earn some time and use South Korea as a buffer avoid augmenting pressure in the form of economic sanctions by the Trump administration,” opined Bong Youngshik Daniel, a research fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. If the summit meeting between America and North Korea does move forward, then it would be the first. No sitting U.S. president has ever held a meeting with a leader from North Korea.
Even with the possibility of this love-call being a trap, the Moon Jae-in and the Trump administration have decided to walk into it willingly. This can be another opportunity—far more promising than the previous—to put a final end on the nuclear threat that has lasted for more than 25 years. Some continue to fear that North Korea made the proposal out of tactical reasons. However, researchers stress that the reason for wanting to hold a meeting is not important; rather “It depends on how Seoul and Washington take advantage of this opening,” emphasizes Researcher Bong.
▲ Researcher Bong Youngshik Daniel
In Washington, a major realignment took place, sending abstract yet powerful signals to the other side of the globe. Trump has assigned Gen John Bolton, former United Nations Ambassador, as U.S. National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo, the current Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, as secretary of state. In an interview with Fox News, Bolton stated he would ensure the president has “the full range of options,” referring to his previous military attack plans on North Korea.
Simply taking action to appoint new government officials who are vocal advocates of considering military oppression against North Korea, without making any specific policies yet, sends a very clear indication to Kim that the negotiations will proceed with every option on the table. Researcher Bong expects that U.S will not back out from this meeting if Kim does not make “verifiable and firm action.” It is not just making promises but showing it in “action; otherwise, the U.S. will not ease economic sanctions.” On the other hand, Professor Hur Jaeyong (Global Leadership Division, Yonsei University) points out that the purpose of the meeting is not to resolve economic sanctions in one shot. A promising negotiation strategy would be to “react to North Korea’s actions.” Professor Hur offered that the scheduling of the meeting date itself should hold meaning, rather than the results after one gathering.
▲ Professor Hur Jaeyoung(Global Leadership Division)
Say Hello to the Neighbors
In the past, Japan and China had great influence between the relationship of the two Koreas. Nevertheless, during the recent affairs on the Korean peninsula, the two neighboring countries have had less influence—standing on the sideline like a third party. Japan is obviously shocked by the U.S. making decisions without consulting with Shinzō Abe. Yet, Japan was quick to respond and proposed a potential normalization meeting with Pyongyang and Tokyo. Japan is still supportive of the maximum pressure and maximum engagement policy projected by the Trump administration.
Another country taken aback by this sudden progression of the situation is China. China has been rather quiet and remained on the sidelines. It stands to support the view that denuclearization of North Korea has to be achieved not through force or pressure, which has been proved ineffective, but through diplomatic negotiation. Denuclearization of North Korea is in the interest of China. There is no reason for China to sabotage the progress of this plan. The current situation perfectly suits what China has been advocating.
Nevertheless, China’s prominence is evident in matters relating to North Korea. Professor Hur states that, “Through its summit meeting with Kim Jong Eun and Xi Jinping, China once more informs the public that it is a key stakeholder in North Korea.” Researcher Bong even went on to say that China still holds the wild card. “It is China's participation in economic sanctions of North Korea that really compelled Kim to come out and talk with South Korea and U.S on the issue of denuclearization.” With the surrounding countries all supporting the initiative shown by the leader of North Korea, hopefully negotiations between the related countries will bring positive results to all.