KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 01/07/2019
By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
On Sunday, President Donald Trump became the first sitting US president to step into North Korea. In a historic move, Trump crossed over the military demarcation line separating the two Koreas across the DMZ and into the North Korean side. After a brief chat with Chairman Kim Jong-un, they joined President Moon Jae-in on the South Korean side for a trilateral meeting. In what was also a remarkable moment, a US president and a North Korean leader, thus, held talks on the southern side of the DMZ. Regardless of the theatrics that come with Trump’s actions, these extraordinary scenes are further proof that diplomacy still dominates Korean Peninsula affairs for the time being.
Who benefited from Trump stepping into North Korea?
Kim, Trump and Moon all benefited from Sunday’s events. The argument that Trump’s visit legitimizes Kim and North Korea as a nuclear state is misplaced. The Kim family has ruled North Korea for over 70 years, and Kim himself has been in power for over seven years. Plus, North Korea is a de facto nuclear power. The international community needs to deal with these realities. But the meeting with Trump should help Kim in a different way. It will allow him to press ahead with diplomacy against domestic opposition from hardliners, who would have been emboldened following the no-deal Hanoi summit. It can also encourage Kim to understand that a change in behaviour and taking meaningful steps towards denuclearization hold more benefits than simply refusing to consider giving up Pyongyang’s nuclear programme – regardless of whether denuclearization will ever happen.
Regarding Trump and Moon, both of them benefited insofar they saw their respective North Korea policies vindicated. Whatever his reasons, Trump has decided to engage Kim and would like a US-North Korea agreement that he can present as a foreign policy success. This prospect is closer today that it was before Saturday. As for Moon, his pro-engagement stance had been suffering following from North Korea’s refusal to continue to strengthen inter-Korean ties after the Hanoi summit. Sunday’s events, however, vindicate his approach towards easing tensions in the Korean Peninsula. And Seoul can present these events to Pyongyang as an example of the benefits of deeper inter-Korean cooperation.
How can the Koreas and the US build on the DMZ meeting?
Arguably the most encouraging short-term outcome from Sunday’s meeting is the agreement to resume working-level talks between the US and North Korea. Without these talks, there will be no sustainable peace and denuclearization process between both sides. According to Trump and US officials, Pyongyang seems to be willing to offer a “Yongbyon plus alpha” deal, including concrete denuclearization steps on top of the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. In return, Washington has made it increasingly clear in recent weeks that it is willing to engage in a step-by-step implementation process involving mutual concessions.
In the long-term, Trump’s visit to North Korea has more firmly established leader-to-leader talks to become part of the toolkit for the US and the international community at large to deal with Pyongyang. Future US presidents will be able to use this tool to advance their objectives in a way that working-level meetings sometimes cannot. This is the rationale guiding Moon’s summit diplomacy with Kim, for example. Far from amounting to “appeasement” or “recognition”, as Trump critics maintain, this approach recognizes that decades of isolation and sanctions have not prevented a nuclear North Korea and have not brought better lives for ordinary North Koreans. With Kim bent on pursuing economic opening up, high-level engagement is but one of several tools to press him towards those goals.
Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies (IES) at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Reader in International Relations at King’s College London.