Any time two presidents who command massive armies in a tension-filled region smile and shake hands, it’s an unalloyed good thing.
The images released on Friday of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea exchanging pleasantries in the Demilitarized Zone, cracking jokes while meeting together with their immediate staffs, and sitting down for a private, one-on-one lunch discussion represent an important and much needed step back from the nuclear precipice.
It may even signal a move toward improved relations between North and South Korea — another positive step forward for the Korean peninsula.
But let’s not go crazy here.
Friday’s pomp and circumstance is just that — pomp and circumstance, albeit one that has the potential to permanently lower the potential for conflict between North and South Korea.
As for the goal of “complete denuclearization” and “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” which both presidents confirmed in a statement — that will be a bit trickier. In fact, the summit, in key regards, represents something of an implicit recognition that North Korea’s nuclear program isn’t going anywhere.
This should not be a surprise, since North Korea is not going to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program. Why should it?
The summit was made possible, in part, by the ratcheting up of tensions that came from North Korea’s pursuit not just of nuclear weapons but also missile technology that would allow it to strike the United States. Kim’s upcoming meeting with President Trump next month would also likely not be happening if not for Pyongyang’s success in developing an effective nuclear deterrent. In just the past few weeks, both the United States and South Korea have conferred upon Kim and his regime a level of legitimacy that once might have seemed unimaginable — and all of it happened without North Korea giving up any real concessions.
According to Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, “North Korea has to rhetorically pledge to denuclearize” in order to achieve its goals vis-à-vis South Korea, which means things like lessening tensions, getting new investment from South Korea, and arranging meet-and-greets with South Korean leaders, like the one on Friday.
On the flip side, for South Korea, the meeting fulfills several key goals — it gives Moon a political boost, eases the peninsula’s saber-rattling, and reassures the South Korean public that they shouldn’t be so fearful of the unhinged leader making crazy threats . . . in Washington.
Above all, the meeting could set the stage for a larger peace agreement between North and South and an end to the US troop presence in South Korea, which is something that Lewis says, “actually has a lot of support in South Korea,” particularly in light of Trump’s recent threats. For this to happen, South Korea would need to publicly accede to the North maintaining its nuclear program (as of now South Korea takes the same position of the United States, which is in calling for North Korea to fully denuclearize before any peace agreement). But as long as Moon and other South Korean leaders can point to the fuzzy goal of “complete denuclearization” without ever actually achieving that objective, both sides can move forward toward normalization.
So this is all good, right?
Well, let’s not ignore the elephant in the room — Trump. Next month, Trump will likely meet with Kim, and he may think that “denuclearization” is on the table. It’s not. This is not to say that North Korea won’t rhetorically commit to just such a goal. They likely will, as a means of flattering Trump’s ego. This would allow Trump to come home from the summit and declare that he’s received a pledge from his new buddy Kim to get rid of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. It won’t be true, but if it stops Trump from realizing he’s been duped and has gained nothing tangible from his meeting, it’ll mean we can all breathe a bit easier about the possibility of nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
As Lewis says, Friay’s summit “is a dog and pony show and the best hope is that Trump is so envious of the dog and pony show that he will try to get the same thing.”
It’s not a lot to hang your hat on, but with this president you take foreign policy victories — or a lack of foreign policy disasters — where you can get them.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.