In the coming weeks, barring an unforeseen calamity, President Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Six decades after fighting stopped on the Korean Peninsula, lasting peace may be at hand.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In on Friday hosted a summit with Kim. It was the first time since a 1953 armistice stopped the fighting in the Korean War that a North Korean leader has set foot on South Korean soil. Moon and Kim signed an agreement to denuclearize the peninsula completely. They also agreed to sign an agreement later this year that would lead to a permanent end to the Korean War. Moon has agreed to visit Pyongyang in the fall and will have regular meetings and phone conversations with Kim to advance negotiations.
None of this would have happened without close cooperation between Moon and President Trump.
Good Cop, Bad Cop Strategy
President Moon Jae-In hails from a family originally from North Korea that fled to the South during the hostilities in the 1950s. Because of this, he has always held a more dovish approach towards North Korea and has, for many years, called for peaceful reunification.
This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, a hawkish conservative and daughter of former South Korean strongman Park Chung-hee. Her forced resignation in the wake of a string of scandals landed her in prison and led to a special presidential election last May, culminating in Moon’s landslide victory.
Moon’s ascension to the presidency could not have come at a better time. Donald Trump had been president for five months and had taken a more aggressive approach to North Korea than his three predecessors. Departing from Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama’s method of “strategic patience,” Trump decided to give Kim Jong-un a taste of his own medicine.
Last year’s tit for tat of threats between Trump and Kim led many to believe that a military confrontation with North Korea was imminent. Political pundits across the board warned Trump that he was treading in dangerous waters by challenging a “madman” who could unleash a barrage of missiles on the United States. Then . . . nothing. As it turns out, Kim Jong-un is not insane. The North Korean regime might be criminal, but it isn’t stupid.
For the last 25 years, North Korea has been taking the world on a wild ride with the development of its nuclear program. Bear in mind. the North relies on foreign aid from a number of nations (including the United States) to sustain its economy and stability. A huge chunk of North Korea’s GDP goes to military spending. Every time the North felt vulnerable or in danger of internal instability due to a lack of resources, it conducted nuclear tests and threatened the international community. In return, more foreign aid flowed in. Trump’s predecessors preferred appeasement over confrontation, giving North Korea exactly what it wanted, when the particular Kim in power wanted it.
Trump changed the dynamic. Instead of bowing to the Kims’ bellicose rhetoric, Trump returned it in kind. He didn’t stand down to the bully. His famous “fire and fury” tweet threatening to retaliate against North Korea sent Kim a message that he wasn’t dealing with a nice, bow-tie president who would go along to get along like his predecessors. For months, we had continuous threats and military tests, but no real action on either side. Just a continuous stare down that Trump eventually would win.
Couple this with Moon Jae-in’s diplomatic, conciliatory approach to dealing with the North. The previous two Presidents of South Korea were hawkish towards the North, while Obama and Bush did very little to confront them. A switching of roles with a more (seemingly) hawkish U.S. President and a more diplomatic South Korean President turned out to be the right combination to achieve this momentous occasion. On April, 26, the day before the summit, in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Hwa, credited President Trump as being largely responsible for bringing Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. She also credited Trump’s tough rhetoric and economic sanctions on the North as instrumental to making the talks happen.
Only a month ago, prior to his confirmation as secretary of state, CIA Director Mike Pompeo secretly visited Pyongyang ahead of the proposed summit between Trump and Kim. This meeting, followed by the summit with Moon and Kim agreeing to an official to end the Korean War and denuclearizing the peninsula, is sure to be a positive lead up to the anticipated meeting between Trump and Kim.
Bear in mind, there have been two meetings between North and South Korea before on this question. One took place in 2000 between then-President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il. The other happened in 2007 between then-President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il. Neither meeting led to any significant changes in relations, just lip service and gift exchanges between the two nations’ leaders.
Friday’s meeting was different. Kim Jong-un is obviously not his father—though how different he is remains to be seen. What’s significant, however, is that Kim entered South Korea and met with members of South Korea’s government, visited landmarks, and interacted with locals, which has never happened since the formation of the two nations.
Most important, a sitting U.S. president is scheduled to meet with a leader from North Korea to discuss peace and denuclearization—something that has never happened.
And what happens next? Nothing is guaranteed. President Trump says he won’t “be played” by the North Korean leader. But the possibility that long-term peace is achievable after all the bluster and saber-rattling of the past six decades—it’s simply astounding. And the idea that it could occur under this most unlikely of presidents—that’s something to be savored.