Is the Korean spring now over and the Trump-Kim summit on hold? Maybe — and maybe not

Trump's hawkish advisers are clearly trying to scuttle peace talks. But China and North Korea may be ahead of them

Published May 20, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump; Kim Jong-un (Getty/Alex Wong/AP/Korea Broadcasting System)
Donald Trump; Kim Jong-un (Getty/Alex Wong/AP/Korea Broadcasting System)

The potentially historic summit of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is on. No, it is off and we will remain in our eternal present, no history having been made, no advance possible. It will be “a very great moment for world peace,” as President Trump suggested on social media a couple of weeks ago. No, it may not take place after all, we just learned. “We will have to see,” the recently exuberant resident of the White House messaged a few days ago.

I have warned severally in this space that the primary danger to the peace process South and North Korea embarked upon this spring is neither the North Korean leader’s supposed irrationality nor the supposed naivety of Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s courageous president. It lies in Washington, where the Pentagon and the policy cliques nurse a profound, not-at-all supposed reluctance to relinquish the tension and hostility that have served them well in Northeast Asia for the past seven decades. In my read, we now witness the first U.S. efforts to scotch advances toward a negotiated settlement and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The subterfuge I detect is subtle, of necessity: Washington cannot be seen to take the spoiler role given the immense promise that has been evident since Moon and Kim summited at the 38th parallel last month. The popular enthusiasm Moon has engendered, notably but not only among South Koreans, is unmistakable. Mowing down these spring grasses was bound to require finesse. We must therefore watch closely at this fraught moment.  

While the American and North Korean leaders continue their arrhythmic diplomatic dance, it has just taken a very choppy turn, plainly. There is something essential to note in this: Washington’s version of the music starts to sound oddly out of tune. This is what needs to be watched. There are dangers in the atonality. Trump and Kim are scheduled to meet in Singapore June 12, and as of now they may or may not keep the date. Depending on how things go, we may come into a great moment of world peace or we will have an(other) occasion to see why so many of Washington’s foreign policies are not as presented and soon enough go badly awry.  

It is Trump’s year of ever-tighter sanctions that brings the North Korean leader to the table? It is a Nobel for the Dealmaker? Doubtful and doubtful, I would say. There is something impossibly narcissistic in these thoughts. Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy — one-atop-the-other sets of bilateral and U.N. sanctions since Trump took office — has had its effect, surely. But it is a spent rocket now. If it is driving the process at all since Kim and Moon met last month, it is in the wrong direction. To understand this one need look no further than Pyongyang’s announcement this week that it is reconsidering the Trump-Kim summit. Why did it surprise the world in this way? You never know with those North Koreans, we are supposed to think. This is absolute nonsense.

Three things to consider here.

One, the North complains that U.S.-South Korean military exercises now in progress, featuring F-22 Stealth fighters and (the North asserts, while the Pentagon denies) nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, are provocations out of phase with recent diplomatic advances. Given that this turns the annual exercises into a rehearsal for a first strike or an invasion, it is difficult to deny Pyongyang’s point.

Two, and more substantively, the U.S. continues to signal that it holds to the policy articulated when Rex Tillerson was secretary of state, or some variant of it: Agree to denuclearize and all else we want and get started on it. Then we will talk about lifting sanctions and other reciprocal measures on our part. It is a frontal rejection of the eminently sound framework Moon proposed when he and Kim summited, reciprocity the very core of it. “Action for action” is Moon’s phrase for what the two Korean leaders agreed must be seen as a process.

Finally, we have the astonishing remarks of John Bolton. A few days after the Kim-Moon meeting in the demilitarized zone, Trump’s national security adviser invoked “the Libya model” in describing how Washington wanted the North to denuclearize. “One thing Libya did that led us to overcome our skepticism was that they allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear-related sites,” Bolton said. “So it wasn’t a question of relying on international mechanisms. We saw them in ways we had never seen before.”

This man is a body part not customarily mentioned in family publications such as Salon. Given that the North is entirely familiar with inspection procedures, and given the gruesome fate of Moammar Gadhafi once he denuclearized Libya, it is perfectly clear to me that Bolton’s intent was to provoke the North into withdrawing from the Trump-Kim summit.

This is what I mean by subtle subterfuge. We will have to see, but Bolton may have got what he sought, for the North reacted last week — to the joint military exercises, the rejection of reciprocity and the Bolton comments — just as one might reasonably expect. “High-ranking officials of the White House and the Department of State including Bolton, White House national security adviser, are letting loose the assertions of a so-called Libya model of nuclear abandonment,” Pyongyang said Wednesday.

Kim Kye Gwan, the North’s vice-foreign minister, elaborated with this: “If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the summit.”

In steps the Dealmaker. You have read in the compromised corporate press that he refuted Bolton’s inferences. He did not. He elaborated upon them. “The Libya model isn’t the model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea,” Trump said Thursday. While acknowledging that the U.S. “decimated that country,” the president assured Kim that if he deals with the U.S. “he’d be running his country.” Generous of our leader, I would say: Assent to our demands and we will not kill you. But then the clarifier: Libya is merely an example of “what will take place if we don’t make a deal,” saith Trump.  

Reader, if you can make out that Trump contradicted the unspeakable Bolton, do go to the comment box and explain the reasoning.

Did Washington just make North Korea an offer it cannot possibly accept? I see little room for an alternative interpretation of the week’s events.

*  *  *

As in many other cases, Trump and his policy minders advance a hash of openness and belligerence that reflects the hash of conflicts within the administration on the foreign policy side. This past week Mike Pompeo seems to have assumed the good-cop role. Here is the newly named secretary of state on the CBS network’s "Face the Nation" last Sunday: “We can create conditions for real economic prosperity for the North Korean people that will rival that of the South. ... It will be American know-how, knowledge entrepreneurs and risk takers working alongside the North Korean people to create a robust economy.”

It is an excellent if peculiar thought that American capital may one day flow north of the 38th parallel, borne by an onslaught of those risk-takers Americans insist on glorifying vastly beyond their worth. But Pompeo, too, is hopelessly off-key. Listening to his dreamy promise of entrepreneurial wizardry, I wondered where the secretary has been the past year. Economic incentives are indeed key to a negotiated peace in Northeast Asia, but it is rather late (and Western-centric) for the U.S. to begin waving homegrown bunches of carrots.

What we hear in Pompeo, “a Nobel for Trump” and other such pronouncements, more or less all of them hollow, is something we ought not miss. Official Washington is flinching from the most remarkable aspect of the peace initiative unfolding in Northeast Asia. The dynamic is more or less entirely Asian. Again that word: Washington is desperately attempting to thwart this.

Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, is the political heir to Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” (which indeed earned KDJ a Nobel in 2000). Moon’s parents fled the North during the Korean War, but we ought not make too much of this. Moon has an astute read of the North’s 34-year-old leader. It is thus he revived the long-moribund détente strategy as soon as he took office — with an overwhelming majority of the vote — a year ago this month.

While Washington busied itself casting Kim Jong Un as “obviously a madman,” as Trump used to put it, Moon saw a modernizer. There is plenty of evidence to this effect, providing one considers it seriously. At 16, to begin at the beginning, Kim was impressed when his father, Jong Il, returned from the first of his three tours of reformist China. That was in 2000. As soon as the younger Kim succeeded his father, in 2011, he began a series of Chinese-style reforms, liberalizing the farm and commercial sectors and letting state enterprises do business at market prices.

Kim has made two key strategic shifts since assuming power. Having inherited Jong Il’s songun policy, which put the military first, he announced a switch to byungjin — military and economic development in tandem — in 2013. In his now-famous speech on New Year’s Day this year, Kim declared that he was satisfied that the North now has a credible nuclear deterrent, and whether he does or not is beside the point in this context: He thinks he does. Kim then announced a “new strategic line,” whereby the economy is top priority.

“A development dictator” is how Hyonhee Shin and James Pearson, two consistently insightful Reuters correspondents in Seoul, describe Kim. It is considerably more useful than “monster,” another of Washington’s favored epithets.

Moon’s key moment came last September, when the third Eastern Economic Forum convened in Vladivostok. With Vladimir Putin in attendance, Moon proposed a “Nine Bridges” initiative — a series of transport, resource and industrial projects to incorporate North Korea into an integrated regional economy comprised of the two Koreas, China and the Russian Far East.

All sides have been all ears ever since Vladivostok.  

Russia proposes a gas pipeline to run southward to terminals in South Korea. The latter is blueprinting a trans-Korean rail link as part of a land bridge to the Eurasian land mass. Next month North Korean and Russian transport officials are to start planning a highway between the two nations — the third dimension of a transport corridor.

North and South now plan to reopen a joint industrial zone in Kaesong, a border city on the Northern side; when they do, three-quarters of the South Korean firms that operated there until Moon’s predecessor shuttered it four years ago say they will return. Property investment on the South-North and China-North Korea frontiers is already exploding.   

It is not difficult to see where this is intended to lead. Kim the aspiring modernizer stands to bring North Korea into a Northeast Asian economic bloc, the Russian Far East to its north and the world’s No. 5 exporter to its south. China can offload some of its surplus industrial capacity in the North and then stitch the bloc it helps build into its Belt and Road initiative.

Note the verbs here: “can,” “will,” “proposes.” The plans Moon shares with Russia, China and his still-cautious northern neighbor, while quite real, lie out front. But one detects a momentum among these nations that will persist whatever the outcome of the endeavor they all support. In this respect, a turning point in trans-Pacific relations has already been achieved.

*  *  *

There is one key point still to be addressed. How in the world will Kim surrender his nuclear programs, as he has suggested he will, given that his achievement of effective deterrence has proven essential to his opening earlier this year? It is an excellent question — a flowing wellspring of skepticism in Washington.  

My answer lies in those two surprise visits to Beijing that Kim has paid this year. In the most recent, he actually flew — an unheard-of mode of transport for the hyper-cautious ruling family. Line these journeys up next to the progression of Kim’s diplomatic moves, and one detects an answer to the conundrum. In my read, Kim has Xi Jinping’s assurances that China’s nuclear deterrent is effectively at North Korea’s disposal. “Surrender your nukes, young man,” the Chinese president seems to have said. “Ours will deter the Americans.”

This is my surmise. It is highly astute on Xi’s part, and sensible on Kim’s. I note, in this connection, that Xi just recently (and publicly) reaffirmed China’s mutual defense treaty with North Korea, a document Americans do not much like to talk or think about.

If I am correct, Xi has snookered the policy cliques in Washington on the denuclearization question. Now we will have to see what other stunts the Trump administration's hawkish wing may have in mind. This is not over until it is over. 

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By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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