SEOUL—No sooner had U.S. President Donald Trump hinted that, yes indeed, he’d like to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in the same truce village of Panmunjom where Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in hobknobbed on Friday than Moon’s people responded with barely concealed ecstasy.
“Wouldn’t Panmunjom be the most symbolic place?” was the rhetorical question of a top South Korean official after Trump had called Moon and Moon in turn had gotten word from Pyongyang—maybe from Kim himself—that Panmunjom would be just fine.
It would indeed be “quite meaningful,” the official told Korean reporters, “to establish a new milestone for peace” where the Korean War armistice was signed nearly 65 years ago. Well, maybe. But back in 1953 South Korea’s fiercely nationalistic president, Syngman Rhee, had boycotted the negotiations, which he said would sanctify the division of the Korean Peninsula. He left the document for American, Chinese, and North Korean generals to sign.
Quite aside from that historical detail, there were other issues that the Americans believed had to be sorted first. For one thing, what about that battalion of Korean and American troops at the DMZ under the command of a U.S. army lieutenant colonel?
The Americans were totally out of sight during Kim’s day-long foray across the line, but they’re normally standing guard with their Korean mates along the North-South line, staring at the North Koreans. Wouldn’t Trump love to have them around while he was there—and what would Kim think of that?
Yet another question is whether Kim would want to meet Trump in Peace House, the building on the southern side of the line where he and Moon spent much of their time, or would want Trump to cross to the northern side and meet in Panmungak, the North Korean structure facing Freedom House in the Demilitarized Zone. All Moon had to do was take one symbolic step at Kim’s behest to the North Korean side. If Moon was not required to pay obeisance on the northern side, why should Trump?
When Trump spoke with reporters Monday, he clearly had not considered the possibility that Kim might want a format quite different from the summit with Moon. He liked “the possibility of the DMZ, Peace House, Freedom House,” he said, because, ever the party animal, “you’re actually there, where, if things work out, there’s a great celebration to be had on the site, not in a third-party country.”
For all the delicate and difficult questions, however, Americans and Koreans, both North and South, were striving to keep up the momentum toward a Trump-Kim summit. Mark Lambert, acting deputy assistant secretary of state, was in Seoul on a quick visit checking the viability of Panmunjom while looking for details on understandings between Moon and Kim.
The Americans have previously expressed misgivings about Panmunjom, citing such incidents as the 1976 axe attack in which North Korean troops hacked two young American army officers to death as they were leading a detail to cut down a tree that was obstructing a clear view.
The most important question remains, however, not the venue for the summit but whether Kim is seriously ready to agree on denuclearization, including CVID—complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Nobody quite believes he’s going to give up all that the North has fabricated over the decades, but might it be possible to come up with a formula for gradual reduction in the size of North Korea’s arsenal of between 40 and 60 warheads?
Kim’s promise to shut down the test site at Punggye-ri in the mountainous northeast, where North Korea has conducted all six of its nuclear tests makes no mention of the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, where North Korea’s five-megawatt reactor has been processing plutonium. Nor has there been any mention of other sites where North Korea is producing warheads with highly enriched uranium.
Both Trump and Moon have sought to allay suspicions about Kim’s intentions. After disparaging Kim as “rocket man” last year, Trump has adopted an entirely different vocabulary to describe him now. Having described Kim as “honorable” last week, he chose to say “he’s been very open so far.” Indeed, he remarked at the White House. “He’s talking about no tests. We’re looking forward to a great celebration.”
Always, however, Trump hedges his bets. “If it’s not a success, I will respectfully leave,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Moon, eager for nothing to deter the march toward a new era, is asking the United Nations to send observers to watch the shutdown of the acknowledged test site. At least the UN team, if approved first by the UN and then by North Korea, should get a clear idea of the extent of the destruction of the site, said to have been rendered almost useless by the last nuclear test that reportedly sent tremors throughout the region, destroyed homes, and killed an indeterminate number of people.
UN observers could conceivably extend their mission to Yongbyon, but that idea remains in the future—perhaps for Trump and Kim to discuss. North Korea expelled inspectors from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency at the end of 2002 after the breakdown of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement under which the North had shut down its reactor.
North Korea, meanwhile, is showing it is keeping its word in one respect. South Korean defense officials say the North Koreans were taking down their loudspeaker facilities above the demilitarized zone just as the South Koreans were removing their loudspeakers on their side of the line.
Here, however, the South Koreans’ were making by far the greater concession—depriving North Korean soldiers on the other side of the K-Pop songs that have become popular throughout Asia, including North Korea.