SEOUL – A face from the Obama administration showed up here over the weekend in an 11th-hour bid to convince the North Koreans that President Donald Trump is serious about CVID: complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.
Sung Kim, summoned from his present posting as ambassador to the Philippines, seemed like an emergency replacement in a depleted line-up – the veteran negotiator who just might bring the North Koreans to terms – Trump’s terms – getting rid of their nuclear weapons, the missiles that could deliver them and the programs that developed them.
Then word came on Tuesday that Kim Yong Chol, a top-ranking official and former intelligence chief of the North Korean armed forces, was on his way to New York. It’s presumed he’ll be meeting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sung Kim, it seems, has been left in the dust.
Where all this leaves the nuclear negotiations is in a state of continuing confusion as diligent, careful diplomacy of the kind Sung Kim practices keeps getting one-upped by dramatic grandstanding. Indeed, if Sung Kim, with his years of experience dealing with North Korea, cannot deliver a solid deal, it’s pretty sure no one else can either.
That doesn’t mean the summit won’t happen, possibly in Singapore on June 12 as planned before Trump canceled it last week. It just means the groundwork won’t have been laid for a solid outcome.
Sung Kim, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2011 for a three-year tour as U.S. ambassador to South Korea after years as the State Department’s point man on North Korea conducting fitful negotiations with the North Koreans about their nukes, found himself Sunday at the truce village of Panmunjom. There he was, in a tense three-hour session with an old sparring partner, Choe Son Hui, the North’s assistant foreign minister.
The day before, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in had met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also in Panmunjom, for their second summit at which, indeed they both agreed, yet again, on “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula.
The first problem with these now oft-repeated declarations is that they state a goal without saying how it will be achieved. Those are the kind of “details” a diplomat like Sung Kim addresses. And it’s clear the follow-up between him and Choe did not go well. Monday, the American side requested another meeting between the two. “No,” came the response. How about Tuesday? “No,” was the answer yet again.
While Sung Kim patiently waits in his hotel here for a yes, Kim Yong Chol is expected to tell Pompeo that Trump must indeed go to Singapore and, in Trump’s phrase, “see what happens.” Trump himself seemed to agree to that much when he tweeted that Kim Yong Chol, whom he called “vice chairman of North Korea,” was “heading now to New York.”
The risk is that the summit becomes an end in itself, one of those historical moments when enemies meet and declare a bright future after a complete misreading of each other. One thinks of George W. Bush looking into Vladimir Putin’s soul, or Neville Chamberlin concluding after his encounter with Hitler that there’d be peace in their time.
On substance, at his meetings in the States, Kim Yong Chol is not likely to make concessions. He’s such a hard liner that South Koreans widely view him as the military man behind the plot to torpedo a South Korean navy corvette in the Yellow Sea eight years ago with a loss of 46 sailors.
It appears that Sung Kim failed to convince the North Koreans of the virtue of giving an appearance, at least, of agreement to some form of CVID. But Trump showed no concerns. “We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea,” he tweeted. “Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more.”
The excitement among government officials here in Seoul is palpable. There were reports that Moon himself might go to Singapore as some kind of referee between Trump and Kim. Maybe he would show up after those two had done talking – in time to raise their arms in a great show of agreement at last. Choo Mi-ae, head of Moon’s ruling Democratic Party, suggested Trump and Kim could pronounce an end to the Korean War – a prelude to the peace treaty that the North Koreans have been talking about for years.
The fact that a senior White House official, Joe Hagin, deputy chief of staff for operations, was in Singapore with his team definitely lent credence to the widespread belief that the summit had to happen – if not exactly on June 12, as originally scheduled, then very soon thereafter. North Korea also sent a high-ranking official to Singapore for the practical talks on arrangements that the Americans said the North Koreans had failed to attend as scheduled a week ago.
It was that stand-up, of course, that led Trump last Thursday to write his infamous three-paragraph note to “Chairman Kim” cancelling the summit – that and an angry statement from Choe denouncing Vice President Mike Pence for having dared imply that Kim Jong Un might suffer the same fate as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi if he refused to give up his nukes. As she indicated, Pence did not seem aware that Gaddafi had been killed by an angry mob eight years after he did indeed given up his nuclear program almost before it began.
Now Sung Kim is looking for another chance to talk again to Choe, the woman whose statement, said Trump, had shown "tremendous anger and open hostility” that was definitely “not consistent with the desire of humankind for peace and stability in the world.”
Assuming Sung Kim, the son of a South Korean official, born in South Korea, raised in California and educated at the University of Pennsylvania and the London School of Economics, knows how to talk to Choe, he also undoubtedly knows what to expect.
His career hit a high point 10 years ago when he crossed the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom carrying boxes filled with documents that the North Koreans made a circus act of turning over to show they were revealing just about everything they were doing at their nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. At around the same time the North Koreans blew up a cooling tower to prove they were done testing nukes.
Almost all the documents were of little or no value. The cooling tower was no longer in use anyway. North Korea, which had already conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, went on to test five more, the most recent, biggest blast, probably a hydrogen bomb, last September.
If Choe doesn’t entertain Sung Kim for another round of talks, the reason may be that she knows he knows too much – beginning with the difference between CVID and “complete denuclearization.”