Korea: It’s the present versus the past

Once again we’re embarked on an endeavour to defuse the Korean peninsula as the perennial flashpoint in Asia. We’ve been here before—notably during the 2003–05 six-party talks—so we know most of the important bits of the puzzle.

What we don’t yet know is whether all the key players can accept a common objective and will pull their weight as we try to figure out how to arrange the pieces, and in what sequence. But what’s promisingly distinctive about this attempt is how much of the initiative has come from the DPRK and the fact that it relied on building new bridges to South Korea to develop the initial momentum.

The outreach to South Korea (via the winter Olympics), the North–South summits and the attractive challenge to the US for the first-ever US–DPRK summit were, in my view, premeditated rather than spontaneous spur-of-the-moment actions. We can infer from this that the rather spectacular success of the DPRK’s trials with different nuclear warhead designs and long-range means of delivering them gave Kim Jong-un the ‘face’ and the confidence he needed to explore the US’s preparedness to consider decisive change on the Korean peninsula.

Premeditation doesn’t necessarily mean bad intentions. It seems most likely that Kim has a vision (perhaps more than one) of how the DPRK can find a niche for itself in Northeast Asia that’s at least significantly different from what currently seems inevitable: brandishing its nuclear weapons, having few if any international partners, being depleted by sanctions and remaining utterly dependent on China.

We’re now on a journey to see whether that vision is attractive to the other key players and whether they’re prepared to bear the various costs associated with realising it. Among other things, Kim seems more willing than his father to regard change within the DPRK as an inescapable part of a new deal.

The Singapore summit was crucial because the issue needed a unique spectacle to crack the ice and loosen the pieces to allow the players to imagine rearrangements and new shapes. The outcome was by no means breathtaking, but there should be enough in the joint statement and the theatre of the summit to keep matters from settling back too quickly into familiar patterns. And both sides—but especially the Trump administration—learned some important lessons relatively cheaply.

One lesson is that the playbook of unsettling and destabilising a prospective negotiating partner doesn’t travel easily or well from the business arena to international security affairs. In the initial period after President Trump accepted the summit, the DPRK quietly stressed that it looked forward to building trust over a number of such meetings. By contrast, senior figures in Washington tried to build momentum for fast-tracked denuclearisation that would be triggered by a single meeting. In the period immediately before the Singapore meeting, Trump was trying to present the idea of a string of summits as his own wisdom.

A second lesson is that, irrespective of innate negotiating instincts, there’s no substitute for a deep familiarity with the core issues and how they have developed and intersected over time. The US decision to suspend US–South Korean military exercises, and to concede that they were ‘provocative’, was needlessly generous. It plays into the familiar generic DPRK charge that it must suspend engagement because of America’s ‘hostile’ attitude. This concession will cast a long shadow over the negotiations. It will be replayed to foster the image that the DPRK’s military posture and actions are entirely reactive, when the opposite is much closer to the truth.

The negotiations to find a new equilibrium in Northeast Asia based on a formal end to the Korean War have a long way to run. We have made a refreshingly novel start, but that novelty will, and should, progressively fade away as talks confront the core issues associated with why the war was fought and how its consequences have been managed since.

All negotiations involve blending a dispassionate assessment of the issue as it stands and an appreciation of how it came to acquire its current characteristics. The art form lies in mixing and deploying the blend. Trump lives in the present and, across most issues, dismisses what was done in the past as either irrelevant or bad and misguided. It’s hard to dispute that the Korea question needed some Trumpism to find a way in. The worry is that the people on the other side of the issue are all about history. They started the war, and they came so agonisingly close to success that living with the inconclusive outcome was even harder to endure. Initially at least, they will be testing the scope for these prospective negotiations to nudge the configuration of Northeast Asia in much the same direction that they hoped the 1950–53 war would deliver.

Can Trump do his part? Can he assemble a quality team and make astute judgements on when to wade into the negotiations and when to stay out, even if it means other people being credited with important accomplishments? Rather a lot hangs on being able to say ‘yes he can’.

In the same vein, can Pyongyang and Beijing reach a stable understanding on how the DPRK’s negotiating position will be determined? This is a critical aspect of the entire exercise but one that is, and will remain, essentially invisible. It’s just one reason to think that encouraging the Pyongyang–Seoul axis to become the primary channel of negotiation might be conducive to durable outcomes.

Still, if our odd couple ever get to the point of sharing jokes about their respective superlative personal attributes—not even Trump is in Kim’s league in that department—they might well write a very useful page of history.