President Donald Trump has called off the much-anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be held on June 12 in Singapore. He cited unfriendly attitude toward the US as the reason. According to him, the American military was ready to use force against Pyongyang.
The meeting was deliberately sabotaged by Washington. For instance, Vice President Mike Pence made a provocative statement in an interview with Fox News on May 21 when he compared the North Korean denuclearization to the “Libyan model 2003, 2004”. He was referring to Libya’s leader Colonel Ghaddafi who abandoned his nuclear program in 2003 and admitted international inspectors to verify the compliance. In 2011, he was murdered by NATO-supported rebels. Mr. Pence is too seasoned to say something publicly off the cuff. He realized well the statement would prompt a negative reaction of North Korean leadership who perceived the comparison as an attempt to drive Pyongyang into the corner.
Before that, National Security Adviser Mike Bolton had given an ultimatum, demanding that all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and fissile materials be transferred to the processing center in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. According to him, the agreement to totally dismantle the nuclear program was a precondition for the summit. The bellicose statements provoked Pyongyang into lashing out. The reaction was used by the United States as a pretext for nixing the top-level event.
The US stance is in contrast to the approaches adopted by South Korea and China, trying to seize the opportunity for détente on the Korean Peninsula. As in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, America is isolated again. The decision may aggravate tensions. North Korea had gone its part of the road, including the April summit with the president of South Korea, freeing American hostages and demolishing its nuclear testing range. All the steps undertaken by Pyongyang have gone unrewarded to make it look like a party striving for peace but obstructed by Washington, which has taken a bellicose stance.
President Trump wants everything at once to score a big foreign policy victory before the 2018 midterm election. He appears to be unaware of the entire complexity of the problem he is dealing with. The United States’ insistence on total denuclearization was unrealistic from the start. Getting rid of the nuclear potential is a gradual and complicated process not to be done in one swell swoop. It presupposes verification and practical benefits the disarming party will receive as a result of its compliance. There is no easy way to achieve progress.
Iran had done the same by sticking to the provisions of the JCPOA or the nuclear deal. The deal was torn up by Washington. In both cases the US took unilateral action. The similarity is obvious. Other parties to the JCPOA refused to follow suit and are applying efforts to save the agreement. Those who are interested in preserving peace on the Korean Peninsula can do the same. China, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and the UN can continue talks and steps to ease tensions. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is ready to cooperate. This is an opportunity not to miss. If progress is achieved, there’ll be no justification for an expanded US military presence neither in South Korea nor Japan.
The negotiation process will not be launched from scratch. The time is right to remember the road map put forward by Russia last year and supported by China. The first step is putting an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing (already done) in exchange for the US and South Korea sustaining their annual joint military exercises. Seoul will have to take an independent decision as a sovereign state. After all, the exercises in question are bilateral, not unilateral, and they are held on South Korean soil. It’s not necessary to hold drills in the proximity of the North Korean border. Offensive weapons, such as strategic bombers and aircraft carriers, can do their training somewhere else not to stir security concerns.
With no provocative activities taking place, the two Koreas would create the right environment for further talks on demilitarization of the border areas and other confidence-building measures. Actually, this process is already underway. Whatever the US says or does, the stabilization efforts should be continued. If détente between the two Koreas takes shape, other nations, such as Russia, China and Japan, will join in. The US will be invited to become a party to the talks and make a contribution, if it wants to but there will be other actors to reckon with.
North Korea should be offered economic incentives. Moscow and Pyongyang are involved in a number of joint projects which benefit both parties. The two countries share the desire to stabilize the situation. The last thing Moscow wants is a conflict to reverberate in the Russian Far East. A working group on peace and security functioning under Russia’s auspices could be set up based on the previous experience of the Six-Party Talks.
Those who follow the events in the region remember well the teetering on the brink of war 18 years ago. Moscow applied diplomatic efforts to keep potential hostilities away. In February 2000, it inked the Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation with Pyongyang. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited North Korea in July of the same year to hold comprehensive talks. The Russian leader left Pyongyang for Okinawa, Japan, where the G20 summit was held and the nuclear program was one of the issues addressed. Back then, Russia took the lead to dissipate clouds. Moscow’s peace initiative paved the way for world leaders to follow suit, including US State Secretary Madeleine Albright, who went to Pyongyang in October, 2000. A US – North Korean summit was part of the agenda. The Six-Party Talks were launched to give diplomacy a chance. The process got stymied in 2001 when the Bush administration took office in the US.
Negotiations, not ultimatums and threats, promote the solution of the problem. Washington’s demarche is not the end of peace efforts. Russia and China have put forward a road map, which is a good starting point for talks. The peace process can continue without the US.