The first meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un (now referred to as “Chairman” rather than Little Rocket Man) is still several hours away, but the entire American team is on the ground and at work in Singapore. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a press conference this morning where he largely batted away questions from reporters demanding to know what was or wasn’t on the table. It’s hard to disagree with that approach since there’s no sense having negotiations if there’s no room for compromise.
I’m still far from certain that there’s a successful outcome possible, but having come this far we might as well roll the dice and see what Kim is willing to offer. Let’s just say for the sake of argument, however, that they somehow pull this off, end the Korean War and fully denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. That’s good news for the west if Kim scraps his nuclear toys. It’s good news for the people of North Korea if they have more access to food and technology. But the real winners here might be the people of South Korea. They’re the ones who have had to live in the shadow of a heavily armed madman for the entire lives of most South Koreans. If that threat were somehow eliminated they could collectively take a deep breath and focus on the future.
ABC News has actually been doing a good job of hitting some “man on the street” interviews around South Korea and speaking with people both young and old who are considering the possibilities. They seem to have more invested in this summit than either the North or the United States. The interviews start at around the three minute mark of this video.
There’s another group of people holding their breath for a successful outcome this week. The expats who have fled North Korea over the years are now wondering if they might possibly be able to come home. But they are the ones with the most to lose and a reminder that this is all still very tenuous.
No matter how well these talks seem to go or what sort of agreement may be reached, we need to remember that in a week, a month or a year, Kim Jong-un could fly into a snit over some perceived slight and cancel the entire thing, shutting down the borders and reverting to his old policies once he receives enough sanctions relief to refill his coffers. Even if he’s actually left without nukes, he’ll likely have a metric buttload of conventional weapons ready to bring back online. And any former expats who came back home could quickly find themselves in a gulag or worse.
Sure, I’m probably sounding like something of a downer here when most of the world is trying to be enthusiastic, but we simply can’t forget the lengthy history of Kim’s family. They are hardly adverse to breaking deals or lying to get what they want. These are some of the most brutal murderers and human rights abusers on the planet. Kim may be sincere about suddenly wanting peace and rapprochement, but he also may just be desperate because the sanctions hit him so hard. Once that desperation passes we simply can’t rule out the possibility that we’ll be back to dealing with the same old Kim. As always with these despotic regimes, I think we should hope for the best but prepare for the worst.