In the 65 years since an armistice stopped the Korean War, the sides have never resumed battle, nor enjoyed a comfortable peace. President Donald Trump, in 15 months, has seemingly managed to help bring both possibilities closer to fruition than any of his predecessors.
Early on, Trump belittled North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with names like “Little Rocket Man” and sallies about whose button was bigger, and Kim responded with violent boasts, nuclear tests and provocative missile launches. Now, that Trump is buddying up and tweeting out sweetness, Kim is responding in kind, and a meeting might be just weeks away.
But what has happened, while encouraging, is not unprecedented. North Korea and South Korea signed on to road maps to peace and denuclearization in 1992, 2000 and again in 2007. In each case, North Korea lied, failed to live up to agreements and abandoned the deals.
For 25 years, North Korea has alternated between pursuing weapons and promising to abandon them in return for economic aid. Kim has conducted six nuclear weapons tests and multiple missile launches, but sanctions are starving his people. So it’s not surprising that he is ready to switch emphasis. He made his point.
And yet, this moment can be different. Last week’s meeting of Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in inside the space that separates the two nations was heartening. They made real progress on issues including fishing rights, reunions of separated relatives and communications. South Korea’s reaction to the progress is glowingly optimistic, and officials there say Trump’s tough talk, tough sanctions and quick switch to kindness have been masterful.
As Winston Churchill said, “To jaw-jaw always is better than to war-war.”
Full denuclearization, the main goal, is almost certainly unachievable at present. To believe North Korea would disassemble its program having just completed it is delusional. So the United States cannot shut down the nuclear umbrella that protects Japan and South Korea.
That the Korean conflict is also a proxy war in which China sides with North Korea and the United States keeps a military force of about 25,000 soldiers on the border complicates talks. The proxy war is linked to Trump’s trade plays with China and the rest of the region. And North Korea’s behavior on human rights, the worst in the world, is off the table for the talks, a shameful omission. Trump and his supporters are cheering the deal to stop North Korea’s nuclear program before a single detail is known, even as they panned the deal to stop Iran’s nuclear program before a single detail was known. That level of partisanship is foolish. And Trump’s threats to pull out of the Iran deal erode his credibility in Korea. But Trump is also listening to intelligence advisers on Korea, which is wise.
A normalization treaty between the Koreas merits pursuing because progress must be sought. And hearteningly, it was Kim who had the clearest view at last week’s summit. “We have reached big agreements before but were unable to fulfill them,” Kim said. “There are skeptical views on whether the meeting today will yield meaningful results. If we maintain a firm will and proceed forward hand in hand, it will be impossible at least for things to get worse than they are now.”