In the last two weeks, stunning developments, one right after another, have suggested the possibility that the Korean War armistice will be turned into a peace treaty, North Korea will surrender its most destructive weapons, and the two Koreas will merge into one state.
How did peace break out in perhaps the world’s most troubled region? You can thank, in large measure, President Donald Trump. That does not mean, however, that he will be able to turn the promising situation he created into an enduring peace. In short, Trump the disrupter must become Trump the disciplined leader.
Last Saturday, Kim Jong Un, seemingly unprompted, promised to suspend “mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests” and to close his “nuclear test site in northern area,” a reference to the Punggye-ri facility. Hours ago, the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that Kim will allow foreign observers to witness the closure of the site next month.
Friday, Kim and Moon, at their historic summit, signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. The declaration, among other things, signals the intention of the two Koreas to formally end the Korean War by signing a peace treaty, expresses the desire for reuniting the two Korean states, and commits both leaders to rid their peninsula of nuclear weapons.
On the last point, South Korean officials on Sunday released snippets of Kim’s words to Moon at the summit. “If we meet often and build trust with the United States and if an end to the war and nonaggression are promised, why would we live in difficulty with nuclear weapons?” the North Korean said to his counterpart. “I know the Americans are inherently disposed against us, but when they talk with us, they will see that I am not the kind of person who would shoot nuclear weapons to the south, over the Pacific, or at the United States.”
And if “denuclearizing” the peninsula were not enough progress for one day, for the first time in years both Koreas will soon share the same time zone. In 2015, Kim turned the North’s clocks back a half hour, creating “Pyongyang time.” Now, in another apt symbolic gesture, he’s moving them forward.
So who gets credit for the synchronization of time in Korea and the outbreak of peace in North Asia? Even more than Kim and Moon, the answer is the man who infamously made “fire and fury” a household phrase. As Andrei Lankov explained last month, toward the closing months of 2017 the policies of both Koreas and China “underwent rather dramatic changes.” “The best or only explanation for this is simple: these countries were increasingly afraid of a war breaking out,” the leading Korean analyst wrote on the NK News site.
So perhaps Nixon’s “madman theory”—Trump referred to himself as “this crazy guy” recently—worked to unnerve regional capitals, setting the stage for developments that only a few months ago were inconceivable. Yes, Kim rulers have made concessions in nuclear talks before, but not before negotiations began. That’s what Kim, thrown off balance by “crazy” Trump, is doing now.
Yet shocking the region is one thing. Leading it to stability and peace is another.
Trump, having convinced Asians he was capable of unleashing violence, will now have to show he is also capable of foresight, patience, and cunning. The leader America needs will have to exhibit the best qualities of Trump’s predecessors, say, the strategic vision of a Reagan and the coalition-building skills of an Obama.
Coalition-building will be at a premium going forward. If there is any reason why Trump’s otherwise strange tweets praising “my good friend, President Xi of China” are helpful or why adding the Japanese abductee issue to an already crowded agenda makes sense, it is because he will need Beijing and Tokyo to help persuade, intimidate, corral, and coerce Kim—and perhaps the left-leaning Moon as well.
Kim, even if he does not mean a word he has uttered during the past week, has nonetheless with those words created markers by which he will be judged. Trump, as he negotiates the North’s disarmament, needs to make sure Kim is constrained by those markers.
And Kim’s words also created momentum, accelerating developments. Trump’s other job is to make sure momentum forces Kim to live up to his promises.
If Trump wants that Nobel Peace Prize people now talk about—the crowd at the Michigan rally Saturday evening chanted “Nobel, Nobel, Nobel”—he will have to resist the pressure of making a bad deal and, at the same time, force Kim to do what he obviously does not want to.
So to hold Kim to his bold promises, Trump will have to show he not only has the best qualities of his predecessors but also remembers how to be himself. Yes, Trump will also have to be Trump, just in case the friendly Kim seen in recent days thinks he can return to the ferocious Kim of last year.