The feelgood factor on the Korean Peninsula is better than it’s ever been. Instead of more nuclear arms tests, the signs of a historic reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula are proliferating. Instead of maniacal saber-rattling, there are summit meetings, goodwill gestures, promises of denuclearization and North-South family reunions.
Suddenly, in a matter of weeks, the prospects for a new era of peace have soared beyond mere wishful thinking into the realm of actual planning. A meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea on Friday went well, producing a declaration of intent to denuclearize, removal of propaganda-broadcasting loudspeakers from the border area and the promise of reunions.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the highest-ranking U.S. official to ever meet Kim Jong Un. The former CIA chief, certainly no newcomer to the Korean conundrum, was also upbeat:
“My goal was to try and identify if there was a real opportunity there. I believe there is,” he said. Now plans are being made for a summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for late May or early June, location to be decided.
Pyongyang diplomacy has proceeded so well that South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Monday that President Trump should win a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring the two Koreas together.
National Security Advisor John Bolton seconded the unofficial nomination: “President Moon of South Korea has been very clear that but for the pressure, the economic pressure, the political military pressure that President Trump has put on North Korea, we would not be where we are today.” He added that President Macron of France, Chancellor Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Abe of Japan all share the view that “we are at this point because of American pressure.”
But then come the “buts.”
In the same interview, Bolton stressed that the White House is not “starry-eyed” about the change in North Korea. “We’ve all been called a number of things; naive is not usually one of them. I think the president sees the is a potential here for a historic agreement — a breakthrough that nobody could have imagined even a few months ago. That potential is there.
“But as he says repeatedly, the potential for no deal at all is also there. And we’re not going to know until we actually have the meeting and see what Kim Jong Un is prepared to do. It certainly is the case that the mere words aren’t going to sway anybody.”
Analysts have pointed out that as encouraging as the Kim-Moon summit was, it was swathed in generalities, leaving the North in the position of peacemaker without having given up much of anything.
Even the denuclearization accord they signed was less than it appeared to be. It said they agreed to achieve “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization,” rather than clearly stating “a nuclear-free North Korea.”
The significance of this formulation was not immediately apparent. But Pyongyang has long defined the term “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” to include U.S. withdrawal of its 28,500 troops from the South and removing its so-called “nuclear umbrella” over South Korea and Japan.
The Americans are determined not to be duped by Pyongyang, which has broken promises in the past. Bolton cited the Libyan denuclearization as a model for North Korea.
“One thing that Libya did that led us to overcome our skepticism was that they allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear-related sites. So it wasn’t a question of relying on international mechanisms. We saw them in ways we had never seen before,” he said.
“As we go from really broad details into more and more definitive outcomes, it’s going to be tougher and tougher to keep the whole team on board,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Kim might well balk at invasive monitoring procedures. “Not only would we be watching their uranium enrichment facility — the one we know about — their plutonium reprocessing facility and their reactors that we know about in Yongbyon, we would have to hope that there were no other facilities that we didn’t know about that were enriching uranium,” said Hanham, a nonproliferation expert.
As for the nuclear warheads that the North has for so long rattled at the world: “They’re small and can be moved around the country and they can be hidden,” said Hanham. “We would have to worry about whether they did or didn’t declare all their warheads to us.”
While negotiations get underway, Bolton has proposed a goodwill gesture more substantial than decommissioning loudspeakers or changing the time zone in the North to align it with South Korea and Japan, as has also been done.
Bolton said that the release by North Korea of three Americans detained there would be a “demonstration of their sincerity” ahead of the Trump-Kim encounter. Indeed, it would show that Pyongyang is willing to give up something for progress toward peace, something more than symbolic. While the release of these Americans would not in itself be any sort of guarantee that North Korea is serious about fully scrapping its nuclear arsenal, it would at least prove that something truly tangible has emerged from the new atmosphere in this tense peninsula.
Mr. Bolton is right on target. We can only hope that Pyongyang is listening.