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Can Kim become pro-American?

Mar 19,2018
The late President Kim Dae-jung once told me an anecdote about what then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il said to him at the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000 in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-il was quoted as saying, “My father, Kim Il Sung, habitually told me that as China has two pockets, I must be careful. But I think differently. The number of pockets China has isn’t two but at least 10. Even if North and South Korea are unified, I agree with you that the U.S. Forces Korea should be maintained.”

During the 1950-53 Korean War, China helped North Korea fight against the United States. Yet Kim Il Sung warned his son to be wary of China. These words have passed on to a third generation. Kim Jong-un has not visited China since he came to power in December 2011. He has not invited the Chinese leader to Pyongyang and he did not meet with a special envoy who carried a letter from President Xi Jinping last year. The hostility Pyongyang feels toward China for joining U.S. sanctions is unimaginable.

If U.S. President Donald Trump has an eye on the chess board, he will be able to discern North Korea’s deeply rooted anti-China sentiment. Trump has to fully take advantage of a historic meeting with Kim Jong-un, which will be a golden opportunity to maintain U.S. influence in Northeast Asia and contain China. He should embrace Kim and make him pro-American. Kim is an avid NBA fan. Trump has to think about how to entice Kim to resolve the nuclear issue and at the same time draw Pyongyang over to Washington’s side.

The U.S. and North Korean leaders, who have squabbled over the size of their nuclear buttons, will now kick off a battle of nerves. The one-on-one talks proposed by “Little Rocket Man” were graciously accepted by the “Dotard.” Kim climbed up the bungee jumping platform first and gave a call to Trump, who responded with an “O.K.” The world will be holding its breath as it watches the U.S. and North Korean leaders stand side by side atop a precipice, on the verge of leaping down into the “match of the century.”

Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s National Security Office head who played the role of matchmaker, announced in front of the White House that President Trump had accepted Kim’s proposal of a summit. After hearing the stunning statement, I recalled a quote by Lord Byron: “I awoke one morning to find myself famous.”

Trump and Kim became even more famous one morning, appearing in headlines around the world, excluding those of North Korea’s state mouthpiece.

In contrast to the predominant view that North Korea and the United States would return to a collision course when the Olympic truce is over, a completely new development is unfolding as there will be an inter-Korean summit at the end of April and a U.S.-North Korea summit in May. Expectations are growing for “springtime on the peninsula” to melt away the last remnants of the Cold War in this divided land.

Kim extended the olive branch first. Some analysts say this may be because of the confidence he gained from completing nuclear armament. But it would be more realistic to say that it was difficult for North Korea to bear Trump’s maximum pressure campaign any longer. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in played an important role in shifting the PyeongChang Winter Games into a “Peace Olympics” and drawing North Korea to talks, the real credit should go to Trump. He choked off North Korea through the toughest-ever economic sanctions, even bringing in China, and showed that America is ready to use military force if the need arises.

Even more surprising is Trump’s boldness. Undeterred by a one-on-one meeting with the dynastic dictator, Trump gladly accepted the proposal for a summit. This could be a manifestation of his confidence as a deal maker. He also could have determined that the existing bottom-up approach to negotiations will not work.

And yet, there is no guarantee that the North Korea nuclear problem will be resolved through a summit. There could also be a difference between North Korea and the United States’ understanding of the concept of denuclearization.

If North Korea demands the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea and the removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella in return for denuclearization, a summit will be meaningless. It would not be easy to map the process from nuclear freeze to denuclearization. As experienced before, inspections and verification can become the toughest job.

During the Cold War, North Korea conducted back-to-back diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union, but with the sudden fall of the Soviet Union it became economically dependent on China. If Trump resolutely embraces North Korea and can turn its economic dependence from China to the United States, he will always be the leader who changed the economics and security of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. The United States will have to transcend its “four no’s” principle — that the U.S. does not seek a regime change or its collapse, an accelerated reunification, nor an excuse to send its military north of the 38th parallel — and provide an economic proposal to give North Korea a better future.

In keeping with the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization principle, there is a need to not only guarantee the safety of the regime, but offer an ambitious plan to make it the center of emerging markets. Should Kim Jong-un be convinced to become pro-American, Trump may just see a Trump Tower in Pyongyang during his lifetime.

Over the past 25 years, North Korea has deceived the United States. But that is no longer possible. Trump is different from previous U.S. presidents. There will be no stopping him if Kim Jong-un’s denuclearization turns out to be a deception.

There is no room for Trump or Kim to fail in the upcoming summit. Success is not a choice but a necessity. In the case of failure, the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia will fall into a situation more dangerous than ever before. The two leaders must trust each other and bungee jump off the cliff together. If a summit goes well, a Nobel Peace Prize may be waiting for them.


*The author, former publisher of the JoongAng Ilbo & JTBC, is chairman of JoongAng Group.

Hong Seok-hyun