The real Art of The Deal: who deserves credit for the détente in Korea?

Avinash Gavai

Who deserves credit for the détente in Korea?


April 27 witnessed a historic inter-Korean summit, but now the world faces a burden in helping turn the Korean leaders’ bold but vague vision for peace into reality after more than six decades of hostility.

Of course, meeting that promise depends very much on interactions with the main players of the Great Korean Game, starting with the upcoming summit tentatively scheduled for May or June between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump.

But who ultimately deserves credit for this breakthrough?

Vice President Mike Pence in a press release stated: “The fact that N. Korea has come to the table without the U.S. making any concessions speaks to the strength of President Trump’s leadership and is a clear sign that the intense pressure of sanctions is working.”

National security experts, and even South Korea’s canny new leader are crediting Trump for bringing North Korea to the table. President Moon Jae-in said on April 30 that Trump deserves to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and end the decades-long war between the North and South.

Moon’s comment, as reported by Reuters,came following a congratulatory message from Lee Hee-ho, the widow of late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, where she said Moon deserved to win the prize for his work with North Korea. Moon’s response was that Trump, instead, should win the prize.

“President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize,” Moon reportedly told a meeting of senior secretaries, according to a Korean official who briefed the media. “What we need is only peace.”

The question being asked is whether Trump can take credit for this. He perhaps can, negatively, in that the bellicosity of last year encouraged the two Koreas to regain the initiative to avoid being driven towards war by Washington.

To his credit, Trump has also played more positive role in that his own readiness to meet Kim gave President Moon cover for his own summit.

But nevertheless, there’s no actualevidence that Trumpian belligerence led to this breakthrough, only a strong desire of Trump defenders to claim a ‘win’, and indeed the beginnings of a ludicrous campaign to bestow upon him the aforementioned Nobel Peace Prize are already underway.

Yes, it might be the reason, but we don’t know, so let’s stop saying this as if it’s self-evidently true.

It’s not.

It should also be remembered that American pressure is filtered through China, through which the majority of North Korea’s trade and finance flow. So if Trump’s goading has actually worked, then be sure to thank China. A lot. To be fair, Trump does deserve credit for hammering China on North Korea’s nefarious ways.

Let’s not forget that North Korea under all three of its regimes (made up of Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, and his son, the present incumbent) has a long record of doing whatever the hell it wants regardless of global opinion, so our default position should be that North Korea does what it does for internal reasons.

My own sense is that Kim is bargaining primarily because he now has acquired the ability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons, so he can approach negotiations from a position of strength.

South Korea’s grand strategy

As for President Moon giving Trump credit for the breakthrough, a far more obvious explanation is that he is flattering him. Diplomats and leaders from across the world round the world have learned pretty quickly that the best way to keep on Trump’s good side and avoid White House intransigence, is to suck up to him.

As a son of refugees from the North, Moon (who currently enjoys an approval rating of around 70% in his country) is determined to go his own way about it–tackling the Kim regime not by aggression but by measured engagement. The current cycle of antagonism helps no one, he says, least of all the long-suffering population of the Hermit Kingdom.

In an interview with Time, he said: “My father fled from the North, hating communism. I myself hate the communist North Korean system. That doesn’t mean I should let the people in the North suffer under an oppressive regime.”

Moon has seen these kinds of negotiations in action before and believes they can work again.

History has shown he is a highly effective operator.

As chief of staff to Roh, he helped engineer the South Korean President’s historic summit with Kim’s father Kim Jong Il in 2007, and the six-party denuclearization talks between North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan, which ran from 2003 to 2009.

In his inauguration speech, Moon said he would “do everything I can to build peace on the Korean peninsula”.

On a slightly facetious note, Moon clearly knows how to deal with unpredictable personalities, as it’s evident that both Trump and Kim Jong-un feel like they can do business with him.

“More credit should go to the South Koreans, because they actually made sure to have the North Koreans come to the Olympics and that was organised very very quickly,” said senior lecturer Dr Virginie Grzelczyk, of Aston University in an interview with the BBC.

“The invitation to have the North Korean delegation and Kim Jong-un’s sister…has been really critical to organise the summit that we are going to see at the end of the week.”

The nitty gritty

The promise of denuclearization must now be backed up by tangible actions. Among the early steps, North Korea must end fissile material production and dismantle the facilities involved at Yongbyon and (presumably) elsewhere. This will be a hard sell. Harder still will be the arrangements for confirming discontinuation and dismantlement. Disagreement over verification in 2008 ended the last effort to dismantle the country’s nuclear facilities.

Meanwhile, Kim will have his own demands. Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas points out that “North Korea strongly hinted at what these would be when on March 5 it told the South that it would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons ‘if military threats against the North are resolved and the security of its system guaranteed.’ ‘Resolving military threats’ does not necessarily mean the removal of US forces. At the first North–South summit in June 2000, then-DPRK leader Kim Jong-il said keeping US forces in Korea would be acceptable if their role was changed to that of regional peacekeeping.

Kim Jong-un’s second condition for denuclearization implies guaranteed preservation of the Kim family regime. Of course, the US cannot guarantee that the Kim family will be protected against a rising up of the North Korean people, à la Ceausescu. What the US can offer is normalisation of relations and a peace treaty to end the state of war that has prevailed under an armistice since 1953.

The fact that North and South Korea are themselves talking about a peace process to end the war is a promising indicator.