This week’s historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea set a bar so bold, yet so low that even President Donald Trump might be able to leap it and declare success at his own upcoming summit—as long as he doesn’t get too ambitious.
I don’t mean this to be the slightest bit sarcastic. The fact that Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in met at all—smiling, shaking hands, talking in high spirits of harmony and peace, on South Korean (and, for one step, North Korean) territory—is extraordinary, probably the most awe-inspiring piece of diplomatic theatrics since Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong
And the breakthrough was not simply theatrical. The outcome—a joint statement of vague goals and no specifics, except for a schedule of further meetings—is as positive as anyone could have hoped.
This, after all, is how Soviet-American arms-control talks began a half-century ago, during the Cold War, and the history of those talks could serve as a useful model for the Korea talks to come. The first accords on offensive nuclear weapons, in the 1970s and ’80s, simply limited the number of U.S. and Soviet missiles and bombers, and those limits exceeded the number that the two sides possessed at the time. Nukes were a diplomatic token—something that the superpowers could talk about when political conflicts made it too hard to talk about anything else. But in the course of those talks, relationships were formed, trust was built, forums were created to solve small problems before they got out of hand. When the politics changed, and it became possible to discuss bigger things, those forums and that history of accords eased the transition out of the Cold War in a peaceful fashion.
Where inter-Korean relations go from here, no one can say. But it was shrewd of both countries’ leaders—and perhaps a good sign for the Trump-Kim summit to come—to weave an atmosphere of transformation while keeping the agenda modest.
In the formal statement, released after the meeting, the two nations “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” (Italics added.) There was no attempt to define this goal or to set a timetable for its realization. (Many skeptics have noted that the North Koreans have defined a nuclear-free peninsula as including the withdrawal of all nuclear-capable U.S. weapons within firing range of the peninsula—which would mean a sizable portion of U.S. air and naval forces in the Far East.)
The two leaders also agreed to meet again this fall in Pyongyang, followed, no more than a year from now, by a trilateral conference with the United States, possibly a four-party forum including China, all with the aim of “declaring an end to the Korean War” and “replacing the armistice with a peace treaty.” (A cease-fire was declared in 1953, but the war itself is formally still going on.)
Here, too, there were no manipulative efforts, from either side, to define what a “peace treaty” would entail. Nor was there an attempt by Kim to drive a wedge between South Korea and its main ally, the U.S.—not yet.
However, these statements do create a foundation in which Trump could drive a wedge of his own. Moon and Kim have agreed on a process for working toward peace, however the term is defined. Kim has called it “phased, synchronized measures.” Moon calls it “action for action.” Either way, the idea is that the two sides will back away from their confrontational stance one simultaneous step at a time: For instance, the North Koreans might dismantle some of their nuclear arsenal as the United States lifts some of its sanctions.
Trump’s take on this process is unclear, but his new national security adviser, John Bolton, is avidly opposed, pushing instead for a “big bang” approach, in which North Korea has to get rid of its arsenal—pretty much all at once—before the United States eases its pressure campaign. If Bolton’s view prevails, if Trump rejects the Moon-Kim formula from the get-go, then the summit will be a disaster—and the chances of reduced tensions between North and South Korea, which require U.S. support, are nil.
The Moon-Kim meeting sets up a still broader challenge for all the countries involved. For the United States and South Korea, if the next steps go well, the challenge will be to maintain the military aspect of their defensive alliance—continue to hold joint exercises, keep the pressure on Kim’s regime, and assure allies (including Japan) of our security guarantees—until change really happens.
For Kim, the challenge may be more daunting. The legitimacy of the Kim dictatorship for all these decades—the oppressive state created by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and perpetuated by his father, Kim Jong-il—has relied on the claim (and often the reality) that North Korea is surrounded by heavily armed enemies. With the footage of Kim merrily shaking hands with the president of South Korea (which he had previously denounced as an outlaw regime) and perhaps soon with President Trump (whom he recently ridiculed as “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard”), how can he maintain this rationale for his brutal rule and for his country’s impoverishment?
The short answer is he can’t, not for very long anyway—which means he may have to shift gears, at least to some extent, and paint himself as the savior who brings his people peace and prosperity. That path, which would open up the country to the outside world, carries its own risk. Popular revolts, after all, are often sired by rising expectations and a wider exposure to what is possible. (Ask King George or Mikhail Gorbachev.) Then again, it’s worth noting that, as of midday Friday, North Korean television had not shown any images from the meeting. Kim is trying to control the domestic repercussions for as long as he can—which suggests that he understands what those repercussions might be.
In the meantime (and that could last a long time), Trump would do well to go into his summit with a spirit of gradualism. The best result would be for Trump and Kim to reaffirm the statements of the Moon-Kim meeting and to commit the United States to working toward the same goals. A couple of extra frills could be added: Kim could agree to extend his suspension of nuclear and missile tests (which he has said, rightly or wrongly, that he doesn’t need to conduct anyway since he now believes North Korea has acquired its long-sought nuclear deterrent); Trump could invite North Korean generals to observe the next U.S.-led military exercises in the region (a harmless confidence-building gesture). Trump could then tell Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to prepare a team of diplomats for the multilateral forum to discuss the gamut of issues now on the table—denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, a peace treaty. And then, everyone should just let things simmer on the back burner: watch the pot closely, to make sure nothing boils over, but otherwise, as much as possible, move on.
This move, of course, would be out of character for Trump, who thrives on drama and views himself as an historic figure. But this is the task before him. He needs to quash Bolton’s demands for a “big bang” and dampen his own tendency to embrace leaders who have figured out how to push his very big buttons. Already, simply because Kim and Pompeo had an apparently good meeting over Easter weekend, Trump has praised Kim—the dynastic leader of the world’s most closed and brutal dictatorships—as “very open” and “very honorable.”
Can Donald Trump behave like a normal world leader, even for a little while? The answer may determine whether the upcoming summit is a success or a disaster.