The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un got on track because of the extraordinary leadership of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Remember how we got here. In 2017, Trump and Kim were trading insults and threats. Trump called Kim “Rocket Man” in his first address to the United Nations, promising to unleash “fire and fury the world has never seen” if North Korea continued to develop nuclear weapons. Kim called Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard.”
The threats did not deter the North Koreans. They tested 20 missiles over the course of the year, plus their largest nuclear bomb. By the end of the year, Kim claimed — and the Pentagon acknowledged — that North Korea might have the capacity to strike the U.S. with a nuclear tipped inter-continental ballistic missile.
Trump responded that he had a bigger and more powerful nuclear button, and “my button works.”
The turn came in January 2018.
The North Korean president used his New Year’s address to wish the South Koreans good luck in hosting the Winter Olympics. South Korean President Moon jumped on the opening, inviting North Korea to attend the Games. The athletes of North and South marched as one delegation under one flag. Kim sent his sister to the Games, with a formal invitation to Moon to begin bilateral talks. Moon had pledged during his 2017 campaign to take the “driver’s seat” to revive the “sunshine policy” opening to North Korea and to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
At the Games, Vice President Mike Pence ignored Kim’s sister, but Moon chose instead to agree to a historic meeting with Kim. That meeting sparked exchanges, with South Korean officials reporting that the North Korean leader wanted to meet with Trump and was prepared to discuss “denuclearization.”
At their summit meeting in April, Moon gave Kim a thumb drive that outlined a framework for economic cooperation that might be possible with a diplomatic opening. Moon then reported to Trump that Kim was serious about wanting to talk.
Moon’s initiative led to Trump agreeing to meet with Kim, and the meeting was scheduled for June 12.
Moon surely deserves much credit for responding to Kim’s initiative and pursuing it in the face of the contentious exchanges between the Trump administration and the North Koreans.
Yet after the meeting was set up, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton seemed intent on sabotaging it, suggesting that the U.S. was following the “Libyan model.” (Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had surrendered his nuclear materials as part of an opening to the West. The France and U.S. then led an international intervention with Libya that ended up with Gaddafi deposed and murdered. Not exactly an appetizing prospect for Kim).
The North Koreans objected strongly. So Trump, on May 24, canceled the summit, citing their “tremendous anger and open hostility.”
Moon then acted to salvage the summit. He set up an emergency meeting with Kim. He relayed Kim’s continued desire for talks to Trump. Trump reversed course and the meeting was on.
This erratic, zigzag run-up to talks has moved from missile testing, angry threats and insults to diplomacy. The one constant has been President Moon’s push to move away from war — which would surely destroy his country as well as the North — and toward a peaceful settlement.
The Korean people need to lead the process of reconciliation and formally bring to an end the war that was waged more than 65 years ago. The U.S. and China should see their roles as referees, providing reassurance rather than threats, economic assistance rather than sanctions.
It will be a long road. There are many in North Korea and in this country who don’t trust the process and will work to sabotage any opening.
One thing is clear, however. The spotlight may be on Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, but the producer of this summit was South Korean President Moon.
And for that we should all be grateful.