When Moon Meets Kim, Be Wary of Success

(Bloomberg View) -- Friday’s summit between the leaders of South and North Korea may seem like a sideshow to the main event — the proposed meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong Un. It’s more important than that.

Handled poorly, these initial talks may relieve pressure on North Korea too soon, undermine the U.S. negotiating position, and doom the main event before it starts. Handled well, they could trace a path toward ending the world’s most dangerous nuclear standoff.

That’s quite a burden for South Korean President Moon Jae-in. A longtime supporter of rapprochement with the North, Moon has spent a lot of political capital on bringing Kim to the table. He’ll be eager — maybe too eager — to announce a breakthrough. Perhaps with that in mind, South Korean officials have dropped hints about declaring an end to the state of war that’s existed on the Korean Peninsula since 1953.

Success in this venture isn’t about grand gestures of that kind. What counts is to prepare the ground for the Trump-Kim summit — because if that fails, any progress Moon might seem to make this week will mean nothing.  

Moon should stay focused on the real goal. North Korea says it’s ready to discuss “denuclearizing” the peninsula, but the two sides have very different ideas of what this means. The Pyongyang regime seems to envision eliminating not just its own nuclear stockpile but also the nuclear umbrella the U.S. currently extends to its South Korean ally. Until then, it expects to keep its arsenal and be treated as a nuclear power. That’s unacceptable, and Moon shouldn’t paper over the ambiguity. Better to clearly align South Korea with the U.S., and deny Kim the chance to drive a wedge between the allies.

Second, Moon shouldn’t offer immediate relief from sanctions. That would encourage China and others to ease up as well. Wider cross-border ties, on the other hand, make sense: reunions of families split by the war; more K-pop concerts and soccer matches; educational exchanges; and so forth. All that exposes North Koreans to more information, serving to undermine the regime. Humanitarian aid could be offered in exchange. But Moon should be wary of reviving projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Zone that would provide the regime with the hard currency it desperately needs.

Third, Moon should help the U.S. to establish a strict timetable for action. The North has offered to phase out its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief before — then used the time to continue developing its weapons. The Trump administration reportedly wants to tighten the deadline for implementation to two years. That might be too demanding — but Moon should nonetheless aim to bind Kim to a specific and not-too-distant date for keeping his promises.

Finally, Trump’s recent statements have raised fears that, no less than Moon, he may also be too eager to strike a deal. Moon could usefully guard against that. For instance, rather than accepting the temporary freeze on nuclear and missile testing that Kim has already announced, Moon could push for an immediate hard cap on the North’s arsenal — limiting the number of warheads and missiles, banning further enrichment, and setting out early dates for cuts to the existing stockpile. That would make it harder for Trump to settle for anything less.

It’s right, of course, to want these talks and ones that will follow to succeed. To give them the best chance, though, Moon should be willing to see them fail.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Clive Crook.

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