Over the past few days, Korean diplomats have spread the good news that an inter-Korean summit has been scheduled for April 27. If it goes well, as they expect, it would be followed by a United States-North Korean summit, possibly in late May or June.
The sudden breakthrough came following the visit to North Korea by Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State designate, after which President Donald Trump reported that Pompeo had a successful meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. The fact that Pompeo succeeded in his first diplomatic mission, even before he was confirmed in the role, bodes well for American diplomacy, especially in the dispute with Iran. Could success in Korea be replicated? It should, considering that Iran, unlike Korea, has not reached the stage of actually producing nuclear weapons, and Iran has repeatedly said that it had no intention of doing so. Persuading Tehran to denuclearize permanently and end its ballistic missile program should not be impossible.
Should Friday’s summit at the Peace House in the village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone go ahead, it would be only the third summit between North and South since 1953, and the most promising. A hotline between the two leaders for a direct dialogue was connected last Friday. Officials from the two Koreas are discussing what to include in the draft agreement and whether to call it the “April 27 Agreement” or “Panmunjom Agreement.”
North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and exchanges of art troupes and taekwondo demonstration teams, may have played a role in the thaw, but more likely it was Trump’s robust stand that caused the turnaround and paved the way for Pompeo’s visit.
Just weeks ago, North Korea and the US appeared to be on a collision course, threatening each other with missile attacks and a nuclear showdown. During 2017, Pyongyang tested several intercontinental ballistic missiles that could carry a “super-large heavy warhead” and put the entire US mainland within reach. Then, in September, it detonated a huge nuclear device that it said was a hydrogen bomb.
Unlike previous administrations, Trump threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation and sharply increased the US military presence in the region.
Then, on Saturday, North Korea suddenly declared that it would stop its nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, effective immediately, and that it “no longer needed any nuclear tests or tests of intermediate and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.”
Immediately after that announcement, President Trump tweeted: “North Korea has agreed to suspend all nuclear tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the world — big progress! Look forward to our summit.”
Officials from the two Koreas are discussing what to include in the draft agreement and whether to call it the “April 27 Agreement” or “Panmunjom Agreement.”
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
South Korean President Moon Jae-in had previously said: “North Korea is expressing its intention for complete denuclearization.” His national security office added that Seoul and Washington were exploring ways to set in place a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula to “formally end” the Korean War.
South Korea hailed these developments as an “invaluable opportunity to accomplish denuclearization, the settlement of peace on the Korean Peninsula and the opening of a path toward common prosperity in the two Koreas,” adding they would “make a dramatic turnaround in world history.”
One reason for the optimism is the fact that North Korea has dramatically toned down its vitriolic criticism of the US and its allies; an important barometer of the thinking of the country’s leadership.
Whether North Korea meant that it was ready to only suspend its nuclear tests and missile launches, or get rid of them permanently, remains to be seen. Either way, the new situation is starkly different from where we were just weeks ago. Pyongyang’s pledge to stop its nuclear testing is a very significant step toward full denuclearization. That pledge should be followed by acceding to and implementing the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Trump has combined optimism with caution, saying: “I think we’re going to be successful, but if for any reason I feel we’re not, we end.” In other words, the US would stay the course of muscular diplomacy backed up by the threat of assertive military posture.
The lesson from the North Korean climb-down is that, for diplomacy to succeed, it has to be supported by the threat of robust military action. Appeasement only encourages bullies and dictators. What is happening in the Korean Peninsula is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s brass knuckles diplomacy that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union: A combination of economic sanctions, tough negotiations, and the Soviet realization that Reagan was willing to use military force if necessary to challenge it in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Appeasing Iran has not produced the desired results. After signing the nuclear deal, the P5+1 hoped Iran would moderate its conduct in the region, but the opposite has taken place. Tehran has expanded its ballistic missile program and dramatically increased its destabilizing activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.
It is time to apply the same robust diplomatic approach that ended the Cold War in order to end one of its legacies, the Korean dispute.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1