Finding the 'middle road' between Trump and Kim

The Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam was widely deemed a failure, but there is still hope the two leaders can find middle ground — with South Korea's help, writes Suzannah Jessep. 

OPINION: New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance remains enshrined in our national psyche. It is something that has led us to protest, to be cut from ANZUS by the US, and to pursue a style of diplomacy that positions us as one of the staunchest defenders of nuclear controls and disarmament.

Imagine, now, living next door to North Korea — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). A country which conducted 23 missile tests in 2017 and has repeatedly shown an intent to expand its nuclear arsenal. A country governed by a leader who, in 2018, proudly installed a big red nuclear detonation button on his work desk.

It is in this context that US President Donald Trump’s efforts to meet with the Supreme Leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un, and to negotiate a pathway to full denuclearisation, are notable. And for New Zealanders, who place considerable weight on all efforts to denuclearise our world, Trump’s negotiations are very important. But are they working?

Professor Chung-in Moon, Foreign Affairs and National Security Advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a Distinguished University Professor at Yonsei University, thinks they are — but is increasingly wary of the "deal or no deal" approach being taken by the US leader. At the most recent US-DPRK Summit held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in late February, President Trump pursued what Professor Moon called a "big game" outcome: total denuclearisation, to be rewarded — once verified — by the lifting of sanctions and controls that would enable the DPRK to reintegrate into the international economy. 

The approach was characteristically Trumpian: assert a position, push hard for it, and if you don’t get what you want, walk away and declare victory anyway. But Trump’s "big game" approach didn’t work. No agreement was reached. It was easy, therefore, to label the summit a failure. Observers expected Trump to revert to a Twitter attack, and in doing so, ramp up tension on the Korean Peninsula. But the response was notably muted on both sides, and as a result, the door was kept open for future summits.

Professor Moon, who earlier this month participated in a roundtable with New Zealand academics hosted by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, said it was important to recognise the restraint shown on both sides — but has warned against what he describes as the “butterfly effect”: the escalation of tension on the basis of small signs and signals. He also points to risks associated with the different approach taken by the two leaders. 

Kim Jong-un has been taking what Professor Moon terms a "small game" approach. In other words, he appears willing to offer slow and incremental denuclearisation in exchange for the slow and incremental lifting of sanctions. But it’s a tough game; one that requires a high degree of trust and commitment and doesn’t falter in response to the butterfly effect. Not all anti-nuclear proponents are comfortable with this approach, in that it eases pressure on the DPRK despite the continued existence of, and possibly investment in, its nuclear programme. 

Between the US and the DPRK’s "big deal – small deal" negotiations sits South Korea. As the DPRK’s immediate neighbour, the risks of escalation are clearly significant, but the reward — of achieving peace and denuclearisation on the peninsula — is ultimately greater. Within this context, Professor Moon has been a strong advocate of the conversation between the two sides continuing, without getting too drawn in to reading the tea leaves as to what the summits between Trump and Kim deliver. The dialogue itself is important, and Professor Moon argues that both sides must remain open to some compromise. But the window for negotiations might be closing. 

Both the US and the DPRK have deeply divided constituencies. In the US, those at the conservative end of the political spectrum argue for tougher sanctions and the total elimination of the nuclear threat posed by the DPRK. President Trump will soon be entering election mode and as a consequence will be less concerned about global perceptions and outcomes and more about reassuring the American public about their future prosperity and safety under his leadership. 

At the same time, Professor Moon notes that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is more focused on enhancing his political legitimacy and status than he is on being seen to deliver a security solution to the world. Speaking to senior officials within the DPRK, Professor Moon said that there are many who advocate for a softer approach to negotiations, and are pragmatic about the milestones that could be reached. Others, however, remain deeply distrustful of the US and would prefer the continued expansion of the DPRK’s nuclear programme as a matter of state survival. This is where South Korea has a role to play. 

Professor Moon said South Korea wants to keep the window open for a middle road approach, bridging the "big deal – small deal" divide. The South Korean government will be working hard to develop a roadmap over the coming weeks, and hopes the US and the DPRK will come to the table. The final, fully verified denuclearisation of North Korea is the target on the horizon, but is most likely to be reached through a series of mutually agreed on smaller steps. The pathway is far from straightforward, as shown by the long list of failed past attempts to bring peace to the peninsula. 

Much hope rests on the so-called “mysteriously wonderful” chemistry between the once-named “Rocket Man” and “dotard” to find that middle road. New Zealand will be watching with interest.

Main image: Wikimedia Commons

- Asia Media Centre