U.S. President Donald Trump has agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May. After speaking to South Korean national security chief Chung Eui-yong, who had visited Pyongyang as the special envoy of President Moon Jae-in and conveyed Kim’s message that he hopes to meet Trump “as soon as possible,” President Trump said he would “meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.” Following the two Koreas’ agreement to hold a summit at the truce village of Panmunjom in April, the would-be first, historic North Korea-U.S. summit talks can now be envisioned. President Moon said that the Kim-Trump meeting in May “will be recorded as a historic milestone that realized peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
What has pushed Kim Jong Un to express a willingness to discuss denuclearization is the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” towards North Korea. The Trump administration has continuously ramped up pressure on North Korea, going as far as to review a precision strike, but at the same time urged Kim Jong Un to return to the negotiating table, leaving the door for dialogue open. Kim’s suggestion of holding talks is also especially timely for Trump, who may want a visible diplomatic achievement ahead of the U.S. midterm elections scheduled for November. This explains why Trump immediately welcomed Kim’s proposal, saying that he hopes to have a meeting “as early as in April.” Still, Washington will maintain its sanctions on Pyongyang until the dialogue produces results, as said by Trump that “great progress had been made but there would be no prospect of lifting sanctions until a deal was reached.” In order to lead the dialogue all the way to complete denuclearization, the South Korean government should also maintain its policy of pressure with the close coordination with the United States.
Sudden changes in circumstances on the Korean Peninsula are in fact a compressed version of the history among Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington. Following the inter-Korean summit in 2000, Jo Myong Rok, then vice marshal of North Korea, and Madeleine Albright, then U.S. Secretary of State, visited each other to hold talks. Then U.S. President Bill Clinton also planned a visit to Pyongyang, but the plan fell by the wayside with the Republican Party taking power. In 2007, a meeting between South and North Korea resulted in a plan in which the heads of the three countries would declare the termination of the war, but it was also not materialized. Such experiences, either incomplete or falling through, demonstrate that the current expectations may turn into frustration all too soon.
Given the current circumstances, Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington will now accelerate their diplomatic timetable. In doing so, North Korea and the United States may constantly test each other’s sincerity and take a calculating approach, unnerving the South Korean government, which is serving as a mediator. “Our government will carefully handle this opportunity that has come like a miracle,” President Moon said. “We will move things in a way that is faithful and careful but is not slow.” In this vein, what the South Korean government should do for now is to persuade the North into suggesting its own measures for denuclearization before the inter-Korean summit in April so that more specific agreements can be made at the North Korea-U.S. meeting in May.
It is safe to say that the Kim-Trump meeting to be held has been arranged by the South Korean government. Therefore, we should fully mobilize our diplomatic resources to settle peace on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia. A system should also be established for close coordination with neighboring countries including Japan, which has expressed confusion over a recent about-face by Pyongyang and Washington, as well as China and Russia. It is important not to make a mistake of skipping or overlooking any of the required processes in our haste to stick to the timetable. Such a mistake was what led the past agreements to go amiss at the last minute, and a finger was always pointed at a mediator.