In a stunning diplomatic development, the leaders of North and South Korea met last week at the demilitarized zone dividing their warring countries. They smiled, shook hands on both sides of the border and sat down for an engaging chat. Could this be the beginning of the end to the Cold War-era conflict that, on its worst days, raises the threat of nuclear war?
Get this: The day’s best analysis was also the simplest, tweeted by President Donald Trump, who wasn’t there at Panmunjom but played a key role in the breakthrough: “Good things are happening, but only time will tell!”
Yes, patience and skepticism are required. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, comes from wily stock. His father and grandfather ran their country, and ran it into the ground, as a hermetically sealed kingdom. The goal was regime preservation at all costs. Their strategy was to keep North Korea isolated, convince impoverished citizens they were under imminent threat of attack by the evil United States, and then arm themselves to the teeth to keep the world at bay.
Through the decades North Korea also engaged in talks to end its hostile posture, but always the Kims would renege. North Korea is so poor it can barely feed its people, yet the leadership had such a grip on the populace there was never pressure to open up and perhaps trade nukes for economic aid. So it was for the grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and the son, Kim Jong Il.
But what about the grandson and current leader? Kim Jong Un is the most dangerous of the bunch, having overseen North Korea’s final push to develop nuclear weapons that can fit onto ballistic missiles. Those warheads now appear capable of reaching parts of the U.S. mainland, the Midwest included. Perhaps soon all of the United States will be in range.
Trump faced up to the threat in a way his predecessors in office did not: He made it clear to Kim that there is a genuine red line that cannot be crossed: menacing the U.S. with nukes. Remember the verbal taunts and threats from last year. “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Trump said, mocking Kim at the United Nations. At the U.N. he said that.
And now … the promise of peace talks. North and South Korea are embracing each other. Kim is set to meet Trump within a month or two. It would be the first meeting of a North Korean leader and sitting U.S. president. On the table would be a formal end to the Korean War and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
This is where it gets tricky. The U.S. wants North Korea to end its nuclear program before receiving economic aid in exchange. It’s possible Kim thinks he’s put North Korea in its best-ever negotiating position and is willing to strike a deal. Or it’s possible he’ll try to play the U.S. for whatever concessions he can obtain but isn’t serious about abandoning his arsenal.
A third possibility: Trump’s tough talk has gotten in Kim’s head, while new sanctions have bitten hard. Trump thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping a week ago, so maybe the Chinese also are working hard to rein in North Korea. Maybe Kim has embraced detente to the extent that he and Trump end up with shares of a Nobel Peace Prize. Wherever this proceeds, give Trump credit for his role in making last Friday possible.
The long list of future scenarios also includes a return to confrontation. What we know for sure: Only the complete scuttling of the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile capacities, including a regimen of international inspections, will defang this dangerous adversary.
As Trump said, time will tell.
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