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Bracing for a crisis

Given the unconventional ways of the two leaders, a dramatic deal is possible.
Mar 15,2018
In a private gathering before he stepped down early this month, Joseph Yun, the U.S. State Department’s former point man on North Korean policy, refused to be defined as a dove on North Korean affairs. “People call me pro-dialogue, but I’m really a centrist. If you ask me, the person who is most big on dialogue (with North Korea), is the president (Donald Trump) himself,” he said. Everyone in the gathering laughed. But he was right.

While Chung Eui-yong, head of the National Security Office and the other South Korean envoys who traveled to Pyongyang were explaining to senior Washington officials what happened in their meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Trump called them up to the Oval Office to hear them out. As soon as he heard that Kim wanted to meet Trump in person, he turned to his cabinet members with an “I-told-you-so” look and stunned the group by accepting the proposal on the spot.

All his insults of the young North Korean leader as a “manic” and “little Rocket Man,” his threat to teach him a lesson with “fire and fury” and his dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasting his time on diplomacy with Pyongyang now seem to have been theater leading up to the dramatic offer from Pyongyang of a summit.

Trump can be cruel. His buddy, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was left out of the rapid unfolding of events. Only after Chung made an announcement at the White House and Trump agreed to meet Kim did Trump call Abe to deliver the news. Abe must not have been pleased.

On March 7, U.S. bigwigs gathered for a farewell party for Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, who was returning home after five years in Washington.

On the following day, Tokyo learned over the news that the United States and North Korea were holding a summit in May and that Japan would stay on the list for new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports based on a trade provision that uses heavy duties to protect national security interests.

Tokyo received a double blow from Washington, its closest ally since World War II. In the cruel diplomatic world, there is no lasting friend or foe. Seoul must not forget that it could find itself in the same spot.

A summit between North Korea and America is a definite gamble. Pyongyang may have become desperate enough to roll the dice for very high stakes. But so far everything is rhetorical. Rhetoric came from the South as well. North Korean media outlets have stayed mum on Kim’s agreeing to discuss denuclearization and upcoming summits with both Seoul and Trump. North Koreans may realize they could be forced to deny such developments down the road.

The United States has been trying to see evidence of North Korea’s actual commitment to denuclearization. Pyongyang will not prove anything to Washington before the summit. That may be why Washington had Chung break the surprising news instead of the White House. Seoul has had to stand as a political insurer. Seoul was the center of global attention on March 8 through the stunning announcement at the White House. By the end of May, however, the onus could fall on Seoul if anything goes wrong or nothing happens.

We can predict three possible scenarios. First, Washington and Pyongyang could reach a package deal to resolve the nuclear and missile threats once and for all. Kim Jong-un could agree to the goal of a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. Trump in return would guarantee the security of the Kim regime. Given the unconventional ways of the two leaders, a dramatic deal is possible.

Second, the two could settle for an incremental denuclearization. North Korea could first freeze its nuclear program and gradually dismantle nuclear weapons facilities for later verification. The United States in return could lift sanctions and offer energy and economic aid step by step. North Korea could offer the United States a surprising present — immediate elimination of its intercontinental ballistic missiles — so that Trump can boast of the end of North Korea’s threats to help win the mid-term election in November.

The third possibility is a breakdown of dialogue, and the Korean Peninsula will return to war-like tensions. The two sides will blame each another and take military provocations or action. Victor Cha, a former National Security Council director for Asia, described Trump’s worlds as “black is white, front is back, and chaos is good.” He is that unpredictable. The same goes for Kim. We cannot leave our fate in their hands. We must prepare thoroughly for all possible scenarios. We must defend this country for the future generations.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 14, Page 30

*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Hyun-ki