Defining moment for peace in the Korean Peninsula

June 12 will be the defining moment for peace in the Korean Peninsula. “The highly anticipated meeting between Kim Jong-un and myself will take place in Singapore on June 12th,” President Trump tweeted on May 10, “We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!”

In recent weeks, U.S. President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have presented a promising outlook for what relations between Pyongyang and Washington could be like if Kim Jong-un keeps his word on denuclearization. “For decades, we have been adversaries,” Pompeo told his hosts in Pyongyang, “now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict, take away threats to the world and make your country have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve.”

On his end, Kim Jong-un has responded positively as well. On May 9, Pyongyang released the last group of American detainees and handed three American prisoners over to Secretary Pompeo. Then on May 12, North Korean Foreign Ministryannounced that Pyongyang would dismantle its nuclear test site between May 23 and 25 and invited journalists from the U.S., South Korea, Britain, China, and Russia to witness the process. In the meantime, Kim Jong-un has also expressed his willingness to disclose the dismantling process to international experts for verification.

The spectacle of North Korea destroying its nuclear test site is not new. Exactly a decade ago, noted Jesse Johnson of Japan Times, “international broadcasters were allowed to air the demolishing of a cooling tower at the Nyongbyon reactor site, after the North reached an agreement with the U.S. to disable its nuclear facilities in return for an aid package worth $400 million. But that deal eventually collapsed after Pyongyang refused to accept U.S.-proposed verification methods.”

How, and why, is this time different?

For one thing, as Elizabeth Stanley of Georgetown University pointed out, “analysts have expressed skepticism about this diplomatic overture, pointing to a number of other supposed breakthroughs in the past that petered out, yet this moment does seem different in at least one important respect.”

In their April Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, the leaders of two Koreas declared, “South and North Korea affirmed the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord.” The Kim-Moon declaration, says Stanley, “underscores the fact that as much as rapprochement between the Koreas concerns other parties to the Korean War, like the United States and China, it is a matter principally between the two of them… The symbolism of Kim and Moon’s recent meeting is significant: They met in Panmunjom, South Korea, alone, without their powerful allies. The Koreas are no longer devastated client states caught in their patrons’ Cold War web. Today, South Korea is a vibrant democracy and one of the world’s largest economies. North Korea may still be isolated and impoverished, but it already has amassed a significant nuclear arsenal. Their war largely unfolded beyond their control; it is time to let any peace be their own.”

For another, “The regime’s survival and security have long been the Kim family’s top priority, with political independence not far behind,” writes Jean-Pierre Cabestan at Hong Kong Baptist University, “those are the prime reasons it has sought to develop North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile capability.”

To address these concerns, Secretary Pompeo announced on May 13 that the United States “will have to provide security assurances” to North Korea. “This has been a trade-off that has been pending for 25 years,” Pompeo told Fox News, “no president has ever put America in a position where the North Korean leadership thought that this was truly possible, that the Americans would actually do this.”

Last but not least, Kim Jong-un is shifting gear to economy. In his April 20 address to the ruling Workers’ Party leadership, Kim pledged to seek a “favorable” international environment for North Korea’s economic development so to put the country’s economy “on an upward spiral track.”

“With the pressing existential objectives seem to have been satisfied,” says Cabestan, “economic development has become the crux of the regime’s long-term stability. It is no coincidence that last month the Workers’ Party of Korea decided to abandon its well-established policy of byungjin-the simultaneous advancement of the country’s military, particularly its nuclear program, and its economy-to refocus entirely on economic development.”

The eyes of the world are now focused on the historic June 12 summit. If Trump and Kim get this right, it would be a huge step for peace and security in Northeast Asia and beyond.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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