Asian Writers' Circle

Kim Jong Un should seize the chance to end nuclear crisis

Important as nuclear arms are to North Korea's leaders, Kim should respond seriously to the favourable conditions offered by Trump and Moon

This week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in flies to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The United States and North Korea are working to set up a second meeting between US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim. These developments certainly raise hopes for a reinvigoration of negotiations on denuclearising the North, which were propelled forward by the summits involving the three leaders held in quick succession earlier this year.

But optimism should be guarded. A solution to the nuclear crisis, which has threatened security and stability in the region for a quarter of a century, will not come soon and easily. The history - including what has happened in the short months before and after the historic Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore in June - tells you why the prospects should not be all bright.

There have been twists and disruptions, like Mr Trump's abrupt abortion of the summit itself, which he revoked eventually; the recent cancellation of a visit to Pyongyang by his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and, more importantly, Mr Kim's failure to follow up on his promise to denuclearise.

There will be more twists, big and small, and nobody should be swayed by a single event or development.

FRESH MOMENTUM

Nevertheless, fresh momentum is needed as the two sides are deadlocked over what should come first - declaring an end to the Korean War, which the North regards as a means to secure its safety, or concrete steps towards denuclearisation. That brings a sense of deja vu. There has been a vicious circle in the Korean nuclear crisis that started in 1993 with the North's withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty: The communist country makes provocations, seeks rewards in consequent negotiations, and then derails the talks or swallows its promises, only to revert to hostility.

In the meantime, the regime continues to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un taking a break during their historic summit meeting at the Capella Hotel in Singapore in June. Mr Kim recently complained that the US does not believe in his commitment to denuclearisation
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un taking a break during their historic summit meeting at the Capella Hotel in Singapore in June. Mr Kim recently complained that the US does not believe in his commitment to denuclearisation. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The two major agreements in the past fitted well into this cycle - the 1994 Agreed Framework signed by the US and the North and the 2007 Six-Party Talks accord. Both arranged for other countries to provide economic assistance and energy supplies to the North in exchange for denuclearisation. But both fell through, giving the North time to conduct as many as six nuclear tests and develop a missile it claims is capable of hitting the US mainland.

Will the current leader take a different path from his grandfather and father?

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un taking a break during their historic summit meeting at the Capella Hotel in Singapore in June. Mr Kim recently complained that the US does not believe in his commitment to denuclearisation

The North's founding father, Mr Kim Il Sung, had fostered nuclear ambitions since the 1950s and expedited the weapons programme since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, which coincided with the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from South Korea.

His son and the current leader's father, Mr Kim Jong Il, despite landmark summits with two liberal South Korean presidents, Mr Kim Dae-jung and Mr Roh Moo-hyun, held on to the North's nukes and missiles.

QUESTION OF TRUST

During the crises, the international community, led by the US and South Korea, was engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the North Korean leaders. But the Kim family never intended to give up nukes and kept cheating their way out of the crises.

Mr Kim Jong Un recently complained that the US does not trust his commitment to denuclearisation despite what he has done - demolishing a nuclear test site and a missile engine testing facility. But the world well remembers a 2008 publicity stunt by the North in which it invited the international media to cover the dismantlement of a cooling tower in Yongbyon, its main nuclear site.

The North conducted its second nuclear test the following year. This track record reinforces doubts about the 34-year-old Mr Kim's promise to abandon nuclear weapons, which the Kim family has cherished as a means to protect the country from foreign invasion and perpetuate its dynastic rule.

In order to dispel the scepticism, Mr Kim needs to take substantial steps, like declaring an inventory of the North's nuclear and missile capacities and opening them to international inspection.

Mr Kim should take advantage of these favourable conditions. Unlike him, both Mr Trump and Mr Moon have a limited time in office, and they may encounter political opposition to their North Korea policies unless they achieve noticeable progress in denuclearisation in the near future.

DIFFERENT US LEADER

One thing Mr Kim should remember is that he is dealing with Mr Donald Trump, a man who is very different from the US leaders his grandfather and father faced. Mr Kim and the world need to think about the possibility of Mr Trump, whose already-disputed leadership style had been further plagued by the chaos in his administration caused by Bob Woodward's book Fear and an anonymous op-ed piece in the New York Times, using foreign policy issues like North Korea for his political advantage.

The anonymous writer said that meetings with Mr Trump "veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back".

True, an issue like the North Korean nuclear crisis is the last thing to be dealt with by the occupant of the Oval Office in such a manner. But no one can rule out the possibility of Mr Trump miscalculating and making an impulsive decision - one which could result in a catastrophe for the North and the world.

 
 

President Moon's role as a mediator should be emphasised in this respect. It was then South Korean President Kim Young-sam who persuaded Mr Bill Clinton not to bomb Yongbyon at the peak of the first nuclear crisis in 1994.

Mr Moon, a strong advocate of reconciliation with the North, had brokered the Singapore summit, and he is pushing for vigorous reconciliation programmes with the North to the degree that there are concerns about causing cracks in the UN-led sanctions against Pyongyang. It is also fortunate that Mr Trump still speaks well of Mr Kim.

Mr Kim should take advantage of these favourable conditions. Unlike him, both Mr Trump and Mr Moon have a limited time in office, and they may encounter political opposition to their North Korea policies unless they achieve noticeable progress in denuclearisation in the near future.

Mr Kim said he wants his country to achieve faster economic growth than China and Vietnam. Taking action to disarm, not making promises, should be his first step.

•The Asian Writers' Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2018, with the headline 'Kim Jong Un should seize the chance to end nuclear crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe