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Why Kim wants a summit

Feb 07,2019
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Park Sung-soo
The author, a former minister at the Korean Embassy in the United Kingdom, is a former visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent announcement on his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the meeting is just a means of achieving Kim’s goal of making North Korea a recognized nuclear power. Even if Trump meets Kim at the upcoming summit scheduled for Feb. 27 and 28, they will likely not produce results that go beyond what was agreed to in Singapore in June, a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

As with some media reports, if the summit is on exchanging gradual denuclearization measures — such as shipping out intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from North Korea — with a partial lifting of sanctions, including resumption of inter-Korean cooperation projects and humanitarian aid to the North, working-level talks would be more appropriate. Such a small deal would be enough for Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, on the U.S. side, and former ambassador in Spain, Kim Hyok-chol, who was recently mentioned as Stephen Biegun’s new counterpart, on North Korea’s side.

Looking back, there was Kim Jong-un’s letter diplomacy, which helped upgrade the North Korean nuclear issue to a colorful diplomatic event and succeeded in drawing media attention. Kim sent a personal letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in through his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, who visited Seoul during the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. Moon responded instantly and the two sides agreed to hold the inter-Korean summit in April. Kim Jong-un also sent a confidential message to Trump via Moon’s special envoy, Chung Eui-yong, who visited Washington after his visit to Pyongyang in March.

Since then, Kim Jong-un has sent more than three personal letters to Trump. And his letters helped make the first U.S.-North Korea summit a diplomatic success, as they invoked the interest and curiosity of the press. Kim’s letters also provided support to Trump, who was trying to make the best use of the outcome of the nuclear talks in domestic politics. Now, Kim is trying hard to save the second summit.

Last year, Kim held two summits with Trump, three with Moon and four with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In total, he held nine summits with the heads of countries in a year. The fact that all nine summits were held at the initiation of Kim shows that Kim, while promoting discreetly a nuclear development program, has prepared how to respond to international pressure to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear arms. Kim’s ultimate goal seems to be making North Korea a recognized nuclear power. To this end, he is likely to give Trump a “diplomatic achievement,” such as removing ICBMs directly threatening the safety of the American people, during the upcoming summit.

Top-down diplomacy can sometimes be an effective way of resolving difficult issues. However, there are cases in history where the leaders left big blots by making wrong decisions as they misread the situation. The Munich Agreement, which was signed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in 1938, is a prime example. The Paris Peace Accord, which was signed by the United States, South Vietnam and North Vietnam on Jan. 27, 1973, and President Nixon’s declaration of the end of the Vietnam War, also left many lessons. In 1974, after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese military launched a general offensive against the South in violation of the peace accord, and the southern side fell in 1975.

There is a high risk of making a wrong decision when a political leader tries to use their diplomatic achievements for domestic political ends. Trump, who is in political hot water due to various scandals, and Moon, who pursues reconciliation with North Korea for political reasons, are likely to make a poor decision, such as recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power or making a decision to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, as they are eager to gain a diplomatic trophy by settling the North Korean nuclear problem with their own hands.

If they commit such vital mistakes, they will endanger the peace of the whole world and destabilize the security of Northeast Asia as a whole. The U.S.-North summit aimed at preventing North Korea from developing nuclear arms has completed its prime role with the conclusion of the first summit, which ended with an agreement that both sides would work for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The next step is ensuring the process of substantial denuclearization through working-level negotiations.