The announcement of a second summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, set for February 27-28 in Vietnam, comes after a year of astonishing steps toward reconciliation between South and North Korea led steadfastly by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. This second summit offers hope for further progress toward peace. Given the peculiarities of the principals, the shifting dynamics of inter-Korean relations, and regional and global security considerations, concrete outcomes will be key. Still, the Korean people want peace, and the momentum they’ve built seems unstoppable.
Many U.S. and international commentators understandably focus on Trump’s seat-of-the-pants, willy-nilly pronouncements on foreign policy, and decry “bad process” in policy-making when the president goes rogue without the counsel of the alleged adults in his administration or the vaunted foreign policy establishment.
While critics were on solid ground for criticizing last June’s Kim-Trump summit for being light on substance, it did bolster precious hope for peace for many Koreans and Korean-Americans. On the other hand, the lack of progress since then has been less a factor of Trump’s bad process than rigid U.S. policies on economic sanctions, including rolling back humanitarian aid exemptions (though there has been recent progress in correcting this situation, which will be very helpful not just to North Koreans needing food and medical aid, but also to overall U.S.-Korea relations).
Similarly, all indications are the U.S. has been too inflexible in offering substantial security guarantees to address North Korea’s fears that led to its decision to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place.
Lastly, the U.S. absurdly opposed South-North steps toward reconciliation including the opening of a liaison office and testing of North Korean railroad tracks. There was no critical U.S. interest in attempting to curtail Korean sovereignty on these matters (and both initiatives rightly went ahead despite U.S. objection).
On the positive side, a pause in major U.S.-South Korea war drills and mutual drawdown of armed forces in and around the Demilitarized Zone -- a misnomer as it has been traditionally the most heavily armed patch of ground on Earth -- and also in the waters near the border, offer a security and confidence building boon.
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In the run-up to the announcement of the confab, hopes rest on the possibility of solid progress on some of these issues, which makes sense as absent that, there is no good reason for another summit. Easing of sanctions in return for concrete steps to verifiably curtail North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons arsenal makes a lot of sense and should be the minimum expectation.
Further security guarantees including a formal declaration of the end of the Korean War (to replace the supposedly temporary armistice in place since 1953), initiation of talks for a formal peace agreement and reduction of armed forces should be on the table, even if there is ongoing disagreement on a shared understanding of what “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” means.
Progress on humanitarian aid, family reunifications and further repatriation of remains of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War, while not as splashy as complete disarmament by the North, matter greatly to many Koreans, Korean-Americans and those whose in the U.S. loved ones never returned from that awful war. These issues also need to be advanced as they are critical to the peace process.
While little noticed in the U.S. media, there is now a fairly significant mismatch between reconciliation based on the ardent desire for peace among Koreans, and the single-minded U.S. focus on North Korea’s nukes. A successful summit could bring these two tracks back into a more healthy alignment.
Lastly, the U.S. Congress and the American public cannot be bystanders in the peace process. Peace on the Korean peninsula shouldn’t rest on the mercurial personal relationship between Trump and Kim. The new Congress has plenty on its plate, but legislation to support U.S.-Korea peace efforts should be advanced as soon as possible. We stand on the verge of being able to solve one of the most intractable and long-standing global security problems. Such a precious opportunity must not be squandered.