Proceed With Caution in Korea Talks

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Just a few months ago, alarm bells were going off around the world amid fear that the United States and North Korea were on a collision course to a catastrophic war.  

Kim Jong Un, the erratic dictator of North Korea, appeared hell-bent on developing more nuclear weapons than those he had already tested, along with long-range missiles capable of hitting targets on the U.S. mainland. President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric seemed to be risking a miscalculation that could set off a nuclear exchange. 

Trump disparaged Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and even delivered a barroom boast that his nuclear button was bigger than Kim’s. Trump promised that “fire and fury” would follow any North Korean attack on American soil and vowed that such an attack would utterly destroy North Korea.  For his part, Kim labeled the U.S. president a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

Then, in the midst of all of this escalating rhetoric and ominous military maneuvers, Trump surprised the world by indicating his willingness to sit down with Kim in an attempt to defuse the crisis. With lightning speed that is still difficult to fully comprehend, North and South Korea held a presidential summit meeting in Seoul at which Kim became the first North Korean leader to step foot in South Korea.  

Over the weekend, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un signed an agreement to hold talks with the United States to end the state of war that has existed between the two Koreas since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean conflict. North Korea also reportedly agreed to work toward a  “denuclearized” Korean Peninsula.  

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Not since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany has there been such a dramatic turn of events in a seemingly intractable conflict. Could six decades of a state of war be swept away in a single session of cordial toasts and document signing by the leaders of the two Koreas?  Can Trump close a truly meaningful deal at a meeting with Kim now tentatively set for late this month or early June? 

Certainly, a long road remains between recent headline-grabbing events and lasting peace, particularly given the history of relations with North Korea. Through the years, it has proved adept at gaining bailouts and concessions from the United States and its allies in exchange for agreeing to “give up” its nuclear weapons. But each time a promising conclusion seems to have been reached – most recently in 1994 – North Korea behaved as if no agreement existed.  

Even some harsh critics of Trump have offered initial praise to his blunt style and his unpredictability, which might have had the desired effect of scaring the Kim regime to return to the negotiating table. Some credit should also go to the newly minted secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who traveled to North Korea before he was confirmed for productive talks with the North Korean leader.

A history lesson will help put things in perspective. Bret Stephens, in a New York Times column headlined “Kim Sells a Peace Bridge,” wrote that Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, sold that bridge to Bill Clinton in 1994, promising to shut down a reactor designed to produce plutonium for bombs in exchange for oil supplies, a pair of “proliferation-resistant” reactors and an easing of trade restrictions.

Stephens recalls that Clinton praised the 1994 agreement that he said “will make the United States, the Korean Peninsula and the world safer,” promising that its enforcement will be assured by the International Atomic Energy Commission.  But the pact collapsed just eight years later.

Will Kim be the third generation of con artists in North Korea who play what Stephens calls “the game of escalate and conciliate, cheat-and-repeat”?  

Trump is basking in encouragement he is receiving even from former detractors for his agreement to meet face to face with Kim. But is Kim trustworthy?

This could be Trump’s “Nixon in China” or “Reagan in Iceland” moment, when hawkish, anti-communist leaders achieved historic diplomatic breakthroughs with the communist governments of China and the Soviet Union. President Ronald Reagan, who hoped he could trust then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, said that his guiding principle was “trust but verify.” Trump has promised that he will not be played by the youthful and ruthless dictator of North Korea.

Certainly, the chants of “Nobel Prize” at recent Trump rallies are a bit premature. We hope the president will be successful, but we also retain a healthy skepticism as he moves into uncharted diplomatic terrain. Even if he fails, Trump will deserve credit for his part in turning a potential nuclear exchange into an exchange of handshakes and a peace treaty to at last end the Korean War.