U.S. President Donald Trump may have cancelled his planned summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (although even that is unclear). But it seems that plans for bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula will carry on anyway – with or without America.
Both North and South Korea have gone too far along this path to turn back now. As South Korean President Moon Jae-in put it Friday: “Denuclearization and lasting peace on Korean Peninsula cannot be abandoned or delayed.”
Rather, he said, they are historical imperatives. In the U.S. and Canada, the Korean dilemma tends to be viewed through an American lens: Was Trump wise or stupid to agree to a summit in the first place? Are talks the best way to persuade Kim to abandon a nuclear arsenal that threatens the continental U.S.? Or is the threat of war better?
In Korea, however, the issue is far more personal. The 1950-53 Korean War killed millions. A new war would kill more. Yet for decades, neither side could be persuaded to trust the other. The South feared another invasion from the North. The North feared that the South, backed by U.S. forces, would invade it.
Both sides claimed sovereignty over the entire peninsula. Even today, neither country officially recognizes the other. Which is why the attempts to encourage peace between the two Koreas that have been going on intermittently since 1998 are so important. Currently, the Koreas face a unique opportunity to settle their differences. In the South, Moon was elected president in 2017 on a platform to seek better relations with the North. He has only four years left in his term.
In the North, Kim has ruled since 2011. He has pledged to dramatically improve the country’s economy, a task that would best be accomplished through co-operation with Seoul.
And while the youthful leader has been ruthless in killing off rivals at the top, he faces an entrenched national security bureaucracy that has done well from the state of near-war between North and South and may not appreciate his attempts at rapprochement.
In North America and Japan, Kim’s successful pursuit of nuclear weapons technology is seen as an act of belligerence. In North Korea, however, it is viewed as a necessary precondition to easing relations with the country’s former enemies – a security guarantee that allows the regime to focus on improving the economic welfare of its citizens. For that reason, a decision by the North to immediately and unequivocally abandon its nuclear ambitions was never in the cards.
When the North Koreans made that point last week, they weren’t being obstreperous. They were merely stating the obvious. And when Trump responded by cancelling the June 12 summit, he showed that Washington didn’t fully understand what was going on.
Kim’s response to the Trump cancellation has been cleverly temperate. A senior regime official said in a statement that the North was disappointed by Trump’s decision but is still open to the idea of a summit.
“The first meeting would not solve all,” the statement read. “But solving even one at a time in a phased way would make the relations go better rather than making them worse. The U.S. should ponder over it.”
Indeed it should. With or without Washington, the North-South talks are bound to continue. Both sides want an official peace treaty to end the Korean War. The North wants southern economic assistance. The South wants to give that assistance and is looking for a way that will not violate the United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang.
As for those sanctions, they were easy for the world to support when Kim was threatening his adversaries with nuclear war. Some countries, including China, may find them less compelling now that Kim is presenting himself as the voice of sweet reason.
As I write this column, Trump is musing that maybe he’ll change his mind and meet Kim after all. Who knows? But in the long run, it may not much matter.
North and South Korea seem determined to sort out their affairs. America could find itself bypassed.
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics.