by Thomas Walkom
Donald Trump has threatened to walk out of nuclear talks with North Korea unless Washington gets everything it wants. He may be too late.
Momentum is building for a comprehensive settlement of the Korean stalemate. That momentum seems bound to continue – with or without the U.S. president.
In the West, the Korean conflict tends to be viewed simply as a standoff over the North’s possession of nuclear weapons – one that can end only when dictator Kim Jong Un gives them up.
In Asia, particularly in South Korea, matters are much more complicated. South Koreans elected their current president, Moon Jae-in, in large part because he promised rapprochement with the North.
And while this desire for reconciliation is not universally held (many South Koreans mistrust the North), it is strong enough that earlier this year, when Kim offered an olive branch, Moon was quick to accept it.
Since then, the two Koreas have seized the initiative – first symbolically through the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics and later substantively through a whirlwind of meetings culminating in an April summit between Moon and Kim at Panmunjon, on the border between the two states.
Both have been careful not to alienate their sponsors. Kim has made two pilgrimages to Beijing to ensure that Chinese President Xi Jinping is onside. Moon has lavishly credited Trump for the thaw, even suggesting the U.S. president be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In fact, the entire peace process to date has been driven by the two Koreas. Through their enforcement of UN sanctions, China and the U.S. may have helped encourage Kim to seek a deal. But it is worth noting that he is also following his long-stated plan – first turning North Korea into a nuclear state to ensure its security and now focusing on improving its economy.
In this latter aim, he has found a willing ally in Moon, who is anxious to reactivate South Koreaís so-called sunshine policy toward the North and provide Pyongyang with any aid that does not run afoul of UN sanctions.
Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a hawk on the North Korean question, signed on this week to the subtle wording agreed to by Kim and Moon that calls for “the complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. That’s a goal that Pyongyang usually interprets as applying not only to its own missiles but to U.S. forces stationed in Japan and Guam that are capable of waging nuclear war against the North.
The upcoming June 12 summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim will be important. No question about that. America is a major force in the region. As well, it and other members of the 1950-53 UN Command (including Canada) are still technically at war with North Korea.
But it is not at all clear that Kim will accede to Trump’s demand that he immediately abandon his nuclear weapons – even in exchange for a U.S. security guarantee. As the Iranians discovered this week, agreements inked by one U.S. president arenít always honoured by his successor.
It’s more likely that Kim will put forward the wording he used in China this week promising “phased” measures designed to “eventually” achieve denuclearization.
A few months ago, any recalcitrance shown by Kim to the nuclear issue would have put an abrupt end to talk of reconciliation between North Korea and the rest of the world.
Now I’m not so sure. The peace train is rolling in the Korean Peninsula. Countries such as Canada that traditionally take their cue from the U.S. might want to hop aboard – even if Trump doesnít.
Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Follow him on Twitter:@tomwalkom
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services