Does whiplash make a sound? One can almost hear the collective neck strain pervading Northeast Asia following South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The only thing that might be more pervasive is the air of cynicism surrounding the leaders of South and North Korea making nice, holding hands and pledging peace. Echoes of 2007 cloud the Northeast Asian skies. North Korea, many claim, can’t be trusted, so let’s get serious. And who’d trust Donald Trump? The US president is, after all, reneging on an Iran nuclear deal that might be a model for Korean denuclearization.
Then again – what if this is for real?
South Korea: High stakes
Anyone who followed then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s awkward visit with Kim Jong-il in 2007 can see the Moon-Kim vibe is different. If their apparent chemistry is all for the cameras, Kim must have been investing in acting lessons. Also, with China upping the stakes on sanctions, and Trump holding the stick while Moon previews the carrots, Friday’s summit deserves a chance.
The seismic implications of peace are almost too many to contemplate. While there might be winners all around, the biggest would be Moon. He’d be a shoo-in for a Nobel Peace Prize. Trump is already angling for one, but hats off to Moon for doing the heavy lifting and taking the real risks.
Inviting the Kim clan to the recent Olympics, against minimal but widely reported opposition in the South, was a gutsy move. Trump, remember, deployed Vice President Mike Pence to Pyeongchang to make side-eyes at the Kims.
But it will be Moon left holding the bag if this latest Kim gamble goes awry – not Trump’s White House.
China: pros and cons
China, depending on how you view it, is winner and loser. On the one hand, Xi Jinping’s government might get a respite from Kim’s nuclear tests and missile launches. Fewer angry calls from Washington, Brussels and Seoul would suit President Xi just fine. On the other, if Pyongyang does become a more normal state, Beijing could lose a very useful proxy and source of geopolitical leverage. Pyongyang’s antics have long been a valuable way to throw the West off balance.
Japan: Pushed out of the picture
Moon and Kim hugging it out is a nightmare for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Already on the ropes amid cronyism scandals and a Trump bromance gone wrong, Abe is having to explain a few uncomfortable truths to voters.
One is why Japan, Northeast Asia’s leading democracy, was left out. Perhaps it was Xi’s way of twisting the knife at Abe and his fellow nationalists. Perhaps it’s Kim’s dynastic revenge for long-ago wartime aggression: His grandfather was a leading partisan.
Making matters worse, even Trump excluded Abe from the most important geopolitical event in Tokyo’s backyard. The POTUS signed on to a Kim meeting without consulting Tokyo. That’s left Team Abe looking terribly small – complaining about a flag used in desserts at the Moon-Kim summit and asking Trump to please, please ask Kim about Japanese abducted by Pyongyang decades ago. Will Trump even bother?
There’s another way the peace process could blow up on Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party: demands for reparations. In 1965, Tokyo paid just that to Seoul for its wartime aggression and colonization. If a dessert made Abe’s fellow nationalists squirm, imagine how they’ll feel when Kim pulls out his calculator. With the world, and posterity, watching, Tokyo would have a hard time saying no.
Russia: Pipeline please
Another potential winner: Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has been a side player in the latest North Korea détente process. Not for long, though, if Kim okays a more porous demilitarized zone.
Moscow’s likely focus: resurrecting a decade-old dream of building a pipeline to South Korea. In late March, Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, said: “Should the security situation on the Korean Peninsula improve, we will be able to review the PNG [pipeline natural gas] business involving the two Koreas and Russia.” That – and a trans-Korean rail link to the Trans-Siberian Express, even a power cable to the south – would be music to Putin’s ears.
US: A Nobel for POTUS?
Trump, meantime, may be on the cusp of an epochal geopolitical win. Firing Tomahawk missiles at Syria made Americans feel good, but changed nothing. If Trump’s bluster really did coax Kim to the table, then his White House deserves credit.
Of course, Kim could be playing chess with a checkers president. Just as it’s possible Trump’s “fire and fury” barbs spooked Kim into dealing, Kim could be calculating that Trump is an ideal dupe.
So confident is Trump in his “art of the deal” that he may be swaggering into a trap. Kim gets the meeting with an American president his dad never could, and the photo-op of a lifetime. Then, once Pyongyang secures lots of spoils and buys time, it’s back to Kim family business as usual.
The odds of Kim ever giving up his nukes, after all, are extraordinarily small. There’s a flip-side here, though. If Trump feels played, he might give his new national-security chief, uber-hawk John Bolton, the green light to gleefully open fire.
Friday’s summit deserves a real shot. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at events in the truce village of Panmunjom; harder to give peace a chance.
In the meantime, neck braces are selling out around the globe.