By Geoff Pigman
with the South Korean team under an all-Korean flag in the opening ceremonies of the February 2018 PyeongChang Olympics with senior North Korean dignitaries at his side in the presidential box, he initiated a diplomatic process with uncertain prospects. Although much of that process is still to be determined, Moon’s accomplishments can already be regarded as significant. Although he did not attend in person, Moon deserves all the credit for the recent Singapore summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. The engagement that Moon began with Kim at PyeongChang and followed up with two historic bilateral summit meetings between the two leaders at the Panmunjom truce village has defined and driven the peace process between the two Korean states. Moon convinced Kim that he, Moon, was serious about changing the trajectory of the relationship, which had become progressively more hostile as North Korea tested sophisticated nuclear warheads and ballistic missile delivery systems. Kim, for his part, convinced Moon that he, Kim, was serious about negotiating new arrangements for coexistence between the two states on the Korean peninsula.
Most analysts have concluded that Kim came out of the Singapore summit much better off than Trump. But the global media obsession with the bilateral Kim-Trump interaction and with Trump in general obscures a deeper reality. The most important actors in the Korean conflict are the two Korean states and their leaderships. Trump, and more broadly the United States, is much less relevant to the inter-Korean peace process, except to the degree that, as a participant in the Korean War with 28,500 troops still stationed in South Korea, the United States gets to sign off on a final Korean peace treaty and on the Korean peninsula security arrangements that follow. China, the other party to a prospective peace treaty, shares a long land border with North Korea and would bear the humanitarian impact of a collapse of the North Korean state should war break out.
Moon in effect has given Kim what he most wanted first: international legitimacy for himself and his North Korean regime. The Kim-Trump summit that Moon engineered confirmed Kim’s new status. In the peace negotiations ahead, Moon will not offer Kim full normalization of relations, economic development aid, and a welcoming of North Korea into the institutions of the global community unless and until Kim agrees to a credible plan to denuclearize North Korea and therein removes the existential threat to the survival of the South Korean state. If Kim agrees and follows through, Moon should be willing to accept a withdrawal of US forces from South Korea in the context of a new international structure for guaranteeing security on the Korean peninsula. China, driven by the self-interested prospect of stable trade with South Korea, the gradual stabilization of the North Korean economy, and expansion of its own regional great power status, will become the primary guarantor of both Koreas’ security. Japan will support an agreement that removes North Korea’s nuclear threat, even at a cost of expanded Chinese regional influence. Trump will sell the withdrawal of US troops from Korea to his political base of supporters as a triumph of his ‘America First’ diplomacy, even if the military cost savings do not begin to mitigate Federal budget deficit growth exacerbated by recent tax cuts. Yet ultimately, a Korean peace treaty driven by Moon and Kim will reconfirm a story of declining US global influence, abetted and aggravated by Trump’s own disastrous foreign policy leadership and diplomacy (or lack thereof). At the end of the day, if a Korean peace process begun at PyeongChang succeeds, the credit will go all to Moon and Kim.