Trump checks Kim Jong Un’s Hanoi peace ploy — for now

Trump checks Kim Jong Un’s Hanoi peace ploy — for now
© Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty Images

The song “My Second Date” by Red Velvet — the hip South Korean ladies band that performed for Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang last April — evokes the jitters of expectations conceived on a first date going unfulfilled on the second: “Should I be bolder? What if he, taken aback, turns away?”

President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPossible GOP challenger says Trump doesn't doesn't deserve reelection, but would vote for him over Democrat O'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms MORE’s second summit with the North Korean leader in Hanoi ended without a signed joint statement and with premonitions that this could be it between them. In his press conference after the abruptly-ended summit, Trump said Kim “wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that.”

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Were it a musical, the unconventional ending would have made it a flop. But as realpolitik nuclear diplomacy, the status quo remains. It still has the makings of a smashing success for only one — Kim.

Last May, it took Trump all of five days to reverse his cancellation of the first summit with Kim in Singapore. After calling it off on May 24, the White House announced on May 29 it was back on. All it took was a polite statement from Pyongyang. Once Team Kim regroups and dangles before Trump a fake inventory or a false pledge to open up another expendable nuclear or missile site, the courtship will resume, perhaps with even greater fervor.

The writing was on the wall. On the eve of his departure for Hanoi, Trump said: “As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy.” By this measure, the happiness index must have soared through the White House roof during the separate three-year lulls in Pyongyang’s nuclear tests — between the first in 2006 and the second in 2009; 2009 to the third in 2013; and 2013 to the fourth in 2016. During those inter-provocation years, Pyongyang worked assiduously to advance its nuclear capabilities.

In Hanoi, Trump, to his credit, stopped Kim from selling the same horse thrice. Kim’s pledge to shut down his old reactor in Yongbyon, the focus of nuclear diplomacy since the early-1990s, is about as meaningful as decommissioning a 30-year-old SMZ while acquiring a new fleet of Rolls-Royce and Mercedes Benz sedans. Kim’s father sold it to the United States in the 1990s and 2000s while diligently enriching uranium elsewhere.

Now Trump must reverse his own amenability to concede a peace agreement, a decades-old demand by the DPRK.

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Just why the “Despotic” People’s Republic of Korea — which has violated both letter and spirit of every international agreement it has signed — since the 1970s has sought a peace deal that, in the end, is just another paper agreement, is a question for philosophers to ponder. To the casual observer, a logical possibility arises: Could it be that a signed peace deal with the United States actually brings substantive strategic advantages?

Or, is it that the Kim regime, a unique amalgamation of the weird and warlike, seeks peace and reform — like Vietnam?

Yes, and yes — the latter, that is, only in the event of a post-Vietnam-style national unification. In other words, once the richer, nicer, cooler, or less bizarre South Korea has been absorbed.

The 1973 Paris Peace Accords set the bar high. Hanoi, the “City for Peace” this week, in January 1973 paved the way for U.S. abandonment of Saigon and national unification by force by signing a peace deal with the Nixon administration. In April 1975, as Saigon fell, Kim Il Sung, the original “Great Leader,” buoyed by the unfolding events in Indochina, visited Beijing and sought Chinese support for a military solution to Korean unification. Mao Zedong, no longer a vigorous revolutionary, politely declined.

Hence, the “Vietnam model” of reform and rapprochement with the United States, so ardently preached by Trump to Kim — in, of all places, Hanoi — must have given the third-generational Great Leader and his minions fits of laughter.

Today, the destitute North is able to bully and censor the affluent South at will. Imagine what Pyongyang, after a peace declaration with Washington, could do to the risk-averse Seoul whose default position is to pay and placate Pyongyang in return for de-escalation. “Peace” sounds hypnotically peaceful — but an actual peace by virtue of credible U.S. military deterrence has been maintained in the Korean Peninsula since the armistice of 1953. Decades-long de facto peace has facilitated South Korea’s rise as a prosperous, free nation while the North chose the opposite path.

But, with a signed “peace agreement,” the North can overturn the gloomy future of perpetual economic inferiority. A peace agreement would render the post-war United Nations Command a prime candidate for nullification. Next, the raison d’etre of U.S. forces in South Korea would be compromised in a brave new world of formal faux peace. And sanctions enforcement against the Kim regime will have become a relic of the past.

Through graduated escalation, occasionally tempered with sugar-coated placation, Pyongyang will compel the South to pay up. Inter-Korean economic, cultural and sports projects, which always entail money flow from the South to the North, will palliate the shame of Seoul’s increasingly subservient relationship with Pyongyang under a cloak of “inter-Korean reconciliation.” Any criticism of Pyongyang’s extortionist ways will be regarded “anti-peace.”

In time, Pyongyang will compel Seoul to disarm to its bare bones — 100,000 troops, as Kim the First counseled. While North Korea remains a hyper-militarized state, the South is likely to oblige in the name of peace and reconciliation. The withdrawal of armed personnel and removal of military installations in the Demilitarized Zone, a crucial prelude in Pyongyang’s game plan, has been achieved since the first summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in last April. Pyongyang’s objective is not to eliminate roadblocks but to manipulate its target into a false sense of security.

With luck, Kim could absorb the South without firing a shot. But nukes, chemical, biological weapons and a high pain threshold, not to mention the advantage of being dictator-in-perpetuity impervious to public opinion, ensure victory in a war of liberation.

These are the stakes — the future of South Korea, the security of Japan, and America’s diminished influence in a key region of the world — that Trump unwittingly has laid on the line in his rash desire to make history.

It’s not “game over” yet. But it may be a good idea to visit South Korea before it’s gone. By then, Red Velvet’s “Happily Ever After” will have become a reality for the Korea north of the border, as it did for the Vietnam north of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone so many years ago.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.