With all the shuttling back-and-forth in rhetoric and closed-door meetings among Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang officials lately, it’s a wonder we haven’t developed whiplash watching the high-speed ping-pong diplomacy. On Saturday, South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un surprised us with a second inter-Korean summit almost exactly a month after the landmark meeting on April 27. A clear contrast from the April encounter, Saturday’s meeting was held with little ceremony and without previous notice to the public — Moon and Kim were each accompanied by just one adviser as both sides went straight to business.
According to Moon’s statement to the press the following day (Moon assented to Pyongyang’s request to hold the announcement till then), Kim conveyed his desire to meet informally with Moon Friday afternoon, which Moon willingly accepted. The five-minute announcement reiterated North Korea’s will to denuclearize and underscored President Trump’s determination to end U.S. hostilities toward the North and assist in the DPRK’s economic development upon Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization. As for Moon, he will exert all his authority as president to ensure a successful outcome.
The very weekend of the Moon–Kim summit, Kim Chang-son (a close aide to Kim Jong-un whom the South Koreans refer to as Kim’s “butler”) was spotted in Beijing’s airport before boarding a flight back to Pyongyang. The trip is leading many North Korea watchers to speculate that another trip to Beijing by Kim Jong-un is in the near future.
By now we also know that Sung Kim, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, is in working-level talks with North Korean counterparts, including Pyongyang’s vice foreign minister Choe Son-hui, to discuss the substance of the still-tentative June 12 summit. Choe only recently called Vice President Pence a “political dummy” and said that her country was reconsidering the June 12 summit. In addition, the two Koreas are scheduled for high-level talks on June 1.
President Trump has yet to confirm whether his slated talks with Kim will take place in June. But the momentum is surely alive on all sides.
Significantly, at this point, all three leaders have already expended much energy and political will in the notion of a fruitful outcome on North Korea. It would therefore be in their interest to make sure that the Trump–Kim summit takes place next month. A nixing of the summit would deal a severe blow to the legacies of all three leaders — we all know that losing a high-stakes game has immense consequences.
It is in Kim Jong-un’s interest that the summit with President Trump happen. Such an unprecedented meeting would of course deliver Kim and his regime many political and economic perks. But the North Korean leader has also, to a certain degree, held himself accountable to his people to make sure the talks do occur. Politically, there’s the prestige factor. Kim’s standing and legitimacy as a leader would certainly receive a significant boost as a consequence of the rare opportunity for a face-to-face exchange with an incumbent American president — an achievement yet to be attained by both a North Korean leader and a U.S. president.
The legitimacy, by extension, would aid Pyongyang’s economic development. To further this point, President Trump has indicated his willingness to assist the North’s economic development — if Kim agrees to and follows through on complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. Moreover, South Korea began communicating the prospects for inter-Korean economic cooperation and integration to its public even before Moon and Kim held the summit in April — premature priming, yes.
The main point is that the Trump–Kim summit would give the North Korean regime a way to advance Kim’s plans to concentrate on his country’s economic development, now that the country has verified its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic-missile capabilities.
Not long after the second inter-Korean summit, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper prominently carried the Moon–Kim meeting on its front page, with photos taking more than half the page. Some South Korean experts have conjectured that this coverage signaled Kim’s commitment to the North Korean population that the summit with President Trump would be fruitful. If indeed Kim has committed himself publicly to the summit, failure to have a tête-à-tête with Trump could undermine Kim’s legitimacy and authority with his own people.
For President Moon Jae-in, the summit would powerfully symbolize his efforts to forge a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. Improving inter-Korean relations has been Moon’s long-term, legacy-defining goal since his campaign days. Domestically and from a foreign-policy perspective, Moon, much like Kim, has invested in the notion of a peaceful Korea, and he is accountable for seeing through successful negotiations with the North.
Shortly after being elected, Moon declared to the South Korean public that he would put South Korea “in the driver’s seat” of the Korean Peninsula — not something to say or take lightly given the gravity of the North Korea problem and the many failed peace attempts by previous leaders. While Moon enjoys high approval ratings with the South Korean population, domestic political controversies have largely been eclipsed, to his advantage, by the hopes, fanfare, and prospects of improved inter-Korean relations. If the Trump–Kim talks were to fall through the cracks, Moon and his party could take flak for not only a failed North Korea policy but also incompetence in addressing domestic political issues.
As the North Korean regime has discreetly demonstrated in recent months, should things go sour between Washington and Pyongyang, the DPRK could conveniently fall back on its China ties — however tentative or definite — to stir up the waters again.
If the Trump–Kim talks fail to take place, Moon’s capability and credibility as a world leader could suffer, and South Korea’s relations with the U.S. could also worsen. U.S.–Republic of Korea relations have been teetering in recent years; one can only imagine they’d take a nosedive in the wake of a failed summit. Further, the Kim regime could blame South Korea’s Blue House for the failure of negotiations with the Trump administration. Along with this could come increased inter-Korean tensions and provocations from Pyongyang. If South Korea is not to find itself in a bind, squeezed by a disillusioned South Korean public and also by a resentful North Korea and a disappointed U.S., Moon must work to advance successful talks in June.
And for President Trump? There is the allure of a Nobel Peace Prize, yes. No incumbent U.S. president has ever held a summit with a North Korean leader. Successful talks or not, this in and of itself would be an achievement for America to celebrate. But more soberly, calling off the Singapore talks could again ratchet up hostile relations with the DPRK. For one, it would be a blow to Kim’s pride and his standing as the leader of his country. And as the North Korean regime has discreetly demonstrated in recent months, should things go sour between Washington and Pyongyang, the DPRK could conveniently fall back on its China ties — however tentative or definite — to stir up the waters again. Beijing, for its part, would probably, for its own strategic benefit, widen the divide between Washington and Pyongyang.
Even if talks are scrapped, however, and even if negotiations turn sour between Trump and Moon, we hope that all sides maintain sobriety and level-headedness to avoid confrontation with North Korea. But if the past few months have been any indication, predictability and reasonableness do not dictate these negotiations.
For all the parties involved, there is just too much at stake to let the Trump–Kim talks tank.