Kim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace

Kim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace
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Without proper context, the atmospherics of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s three-day trip to Pyongyang, and the by-product inter-Korean joint declaration, could lend the impression that Moon’s visit — accompanied by a 200-strong delegation consisting of K-pop stars, a magician, sports coaches, politicians and executives from Seoul’s top four conglomerates — was primarily intended to lay the political, economic, cultural and infrastructural foundations for unifying the two Koreas.

Befitting a historic occasion, with this first trip to Pyongyang by Moon — the first time a South Korean president has visited in 11 years, but the third meeting between Moon and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in less than six months — there was much pomp and circumstance. Ceremonial guards saluted Moon and his wife, and a crowd of thousands greeted the South Korean team with cheers and flower bouquets. Moon and Kim embraced each other, then rode in a motorcade through Pyongyang’s streets in a sleek Mercedes. The first ladies toured Pyongyang’s hospitals and schools; at one point, cameras caught a glimpse of Mrs. Moon giving Ri Sol-ju an affectionate glance as the two watched an art performance.

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Yet something seemed amiss. The welcome tune played by the North Korean guards sounded incongruously lighthearted and upbeat for the occasion, over the top. We cocked our heads askance, wondering if this grotesquely sanguine moment would be cut abruptly short by some sort of heart-clenching announcement by the Kim regime. We had to reel ourselves in yet again with the reminder that the visit, however festive and superfluous, had only one objective: for Moon to convince Kim to display a substantive gesture toward denuclearization to revive stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang, and push for “irreversible, permanent peace.”

And indeed, the festive mood came to a sobering pause when, following a 70-minute, closed-door session, Moon and Kim held a joint media briefing to present their agreement: glossy language touting their efforts to advance a new era of inter-Korean relations; an earnest list of economic, cultural, military and educational cooperative projects for Seoul and Pyongyang to tackle; and lest anyone naively believe the path to realizing a peaceful Korean Peninsula would be a stroll on the bridge at Panmunjom, a well-intentioned caution to expect trials and setbacks along the way.

But what about denuclearization?

The full-text Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018 addressed the nuclear issue as number five of six items — number six was Kim’s tentative plan to visit Seoul, at the invitation of President Moon. Kim’s visit, as clarified by Moon during the press briefing, is slated for sometime this year. The preceding four items in the declaration revolved around making Seoul-Pyongyang relations tighter through the cessation of military hostilities; advancing inter-Korean cooperation and developing “the nation’s economy” in a balanced manner; resolving the issue of separated families; and pursuing cooperation and exchanges across fields including a joint participation in the 2020 Olympic Games and the joint bidding for the 2032 Olympics.

Consistent with the joint declarations from the Panmunjom and Singapore summits, the statement mentions the two Koreas will work toward the shared goal of a Korean Peninsula free from nuclear weapons and threats. Notably, the North agreed to permanently dismantle the Tongchang-ri missile engine site and launch platform, under the observation of international experts. The Kim regime even dangled the prospect of permanently dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility — if the United States takes corresponding measures, in accordance with the Singapore summit joint declaration.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorsi sues Mueller for alleged leaks and illegal surveillance Comey: Trump 'certainly close' to being unindicted co-conspirator Trump pushes back on reports that Ayers was first pick for chief of staff MORE, shortly after the announcement, called the developments “a tremendous progress” and “very exciting.” Next week, Moon will give Trump a readout of the Pyongyang summit along the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. How will the president’s appraisal of tremendous progress be carried out when it comes to his next steps with the Kim regime?

The pixie dust from the Pyongyang summit has yet to settle. In the one camp, Korea-watchers and policymakers argue that what North Korea passed over to the United States, via the Moon administration at the negotiating table, is yet again mere superficial gestures to kick the can down the road and appease the Trump administration just enough for Trump to consider meeting Kim for the second time. Perhaps a timetable of dismantling key testing sites, a list of declared nuclear and missile launch sites, or a pledge to immediately end the production of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction would have planted a deeper seed of faith in Pyongyang’s sober commitment to denuclearization.

In the second camp, those with a more optimistic view of the situation consider the latest development a decent outcome — and probably the most sensible step for Kim, who never planned to give up his country’s nuclear arsenal. At the least, in laying out a step or two, Kim  picked up the ball, dribbled it a few times, and bounced it over to Washington. Now the ball is in Trump’s turf.

The right or wrong side of the North Korea argument matters less now than Washington’s key decision-makers coming to the table to construct a clear-eyed path forward. Critically, the Trump administration, as cautioned by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), does not have too many options and probably is down to its “last, best chance” for veritable peace.

For a second Trump-Kim summit to happen, Washington needs a well-constructed plan, stipulating North Korean actions to substantiate its end of the agreement to make the peninsula “free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats” — no more half-baked, noncommittal, loophole-ridden agreements. Additionally, the Trump administration needs to consider the way forward for its alliance with South Korea; Moon consistently has espoused a “One Korea” approach throughout these negotiations.

If the White House opts against a summit, then we ought to consider the message we are sending to Seoul, Pyongyang, and the Northeast Asia region — on U.S. credibility and leverage in dealing with traditionally adversarial countries such as North Korea.

Seoul and Pyongyang have committed to an “era of no war.” The vise on Washington’s maneuverability has tightened, narrowing the options, and that’s all the more reason to think broadly, with a long-term goal in mind.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.