SEOUL — Summit fever these days is as hot as the weather. We face weeks of heated debate in the run-up to a third summit between South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and maybe a second summit between President Donald Trump and Kim. The Moon-Kim summit is going to test Moon’s willingness to stand up to Kim.
The overriding North Korean demands are for the South to get the United States and the United Nations to do away with sanctions and for the United States to fall for a “peace declaration” before the North does a thing about “denuclearization,” however that word is defined. Moon has agreed to see Kim in Pyongyang in September, but he has avoided setting a date. His hesitation about when to go to Pyongyang adds to uncertainty about how to respond to the North’s demands.
Contrary to what his critics may say, Moon may not be a pushover for Kim. Yes, he would like nothing better than to go down in Korean history as the South Korean leader who brought about reconciliation with the North. No, he doesn’t want to achieve that goal by betraying the U.S.-South Korean alliance, by coming up with a deal with the North that would compromise South Korea’s defenses and by giving up all bargaining power on denuclearization.
Moon would love to have it both ways, to sign a statement in Pyongyang on general principles for peace that still does not yield totally to all that Kim wants. Above all, he has got to make it clear that North Korea has to take significant steps toward giving up its nuclear program. In deference to the North’s sensitivities, the United States seems to have dropped the term “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” but derogatory allusions to plain old denuclearization in the North’s state media indicate they don’t care much for that idea either.
That’s because the North remains deeply committed to its status as the world’s ninth nuclear weapons state and is not going to climb down regardless of whatever deal is reached. If the United States were to go along with a “peace declaration,” accepting some vague ambivalent assurances about denuclearization, there would be no way to bring the North to terms. For the United States and South Korea, their bargaining power rests on the sanctions adopted by the United States and the United Nations after the North’s missile and nuclear tests, most recently last September.
There is, however, a counter-argument. So what if the North has a few dozen nuclear warheads in storage? What does it matter if they’re still developing the long-range missiles to “deliver” them to distant targets, and who cares if they’ve got biological and chemical weapons too? You don’t hear too many people in South Korea, or the United States, worrying about imminent nuclear attack. The reason for the lack of urgency is that no one quite believes Kim is going to fire away for real knowing the holy hell that would descend on him if he did.
North Korea, however, has other ways of undermining South Korean and American resolve, notably by unending emphasis on a “peace declaration” that would wind up jeopardizing the peace that has prevailed over the Korean Peninsula since the armistice was signed at Panmunjom more than 65 years ago.
The reason the North wants this otherwise meaningless statement is that it would lead to a “peace treaty” under which the United States would have to withdraw most of the 28,500 troops it still has in South Korea. No, North Korea would definitely not begin to pull back the thousands of artillery pieces or hundreds of thousands of troops poised within striking distance of the South. In fact, their capacity to attack the South, as they did in 1950, would be enhanced as the South follows through on the idea of abandoning its 60 or so guard posts south of the DMZ. That done, does anyone think the North would give up its 160 guard posts on the other side of the line?
These are some of issues and questions Moon and his advisers may be asking as Moon thinks about going to Pyongyang, paying obeisance to the ruler from the North who believes he can force his hand with sweet talk and dire warnings. For Moon, the challenge will be to walk through this minefield without stepping on any mines, as Trump did in Singapore when he was led to believe he and Kim had resolved the whole nuclear issue.