The leaders of North and South Korea have held their third summit, this time in Pyongyang. Furthermore, President Trump has spoken of ‘unimaginable’ progress in his relationship with Kim Jong-un. Duncan Bartlett looks at how the path to peace may also be a journey from poverty to prosperity
When the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looked down from the plane as he flew into Singapore for his summit with President Trump in June, he saw a gleaming urban landscape which left a powerful impression.
Singapore appeared to him to be a ‘clean, beautiful and advanced’ country. He revealed these thoughts during a documentary about the summit on North Korean television – a rare insight into his mind, in the context of a propaganda broadcast to his people.
He appeared to be suggesting that North Korea could one day rise, like Singapore, to become a prosperous land in which order is strictly maintained.
When the South Korean President, Moon Jae-un, visited Pyongyang in September he also presented a vision of North Korea as a booming economy – but not in isolation. Riches would follow reunification of their countries.
North and South together
Reunification remains a huge challenge but as a start, the South says it might be able to help build a railway through the North, up to Russia. Such an arrangement would appeal to the North Koreans but would clearly breach the existing sanctions.
The main dilemma facing anyone talking to the North Koreans is whether to trust them. The other closely related predicament is the order in which things should happen. For example, should economic help precede the denuclearisation process, or should denuclearisation come ahead of the easing of sanctions?
Art of the deal
Donald Trump, whose background is in real estate negotiation, believes North Korea is an ideal partner on which to practice the art of the deal. He has even spoken of building holiday condominiums upon its beaches.
In an address to the United Nations in September, Mr Trump said his meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore had led to developments which were unimaginable only a few months ago.North Korean missiles and rockets, he said, had stopped flying in all directions and nuclear testing had ceased.
‘With support from many countries we have engaged with North Korea to replace the spectre of conflict with a bold new push for peace,’ he told the General Assembly.
President Trump also said he is preparing to hold a second summit with Kim Jong-un in the ‘not too distant future’. It could happen after Mr Kim makes his first visit to Seoul, probably before the end of this year.
The price of progress
Scott Snyder, director of US-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, is encouraged. ‘The progress suggests that Kim Jong-un is serious about taking practical steps to reduce inter-Korean tensions and to move closer to peaceful coexistence,’ he said.
Mr Snyder believes the summits have been more successful than many people hoped, leading to tangible reductions in military tension. But he cautioned: ‘We still don’t know North Korea’s final asking price for the measures proposed.’
One high price would be for the North to retain its nuclear weapons for as long as possible. Once they are gone, it fears it will seem weaker and more vulnerable.
The British Ambassador to South Korea, Simon Smith, says there is a sense of relief that the North Koreans have continued down the path towards peace they began at the start of the year and are testing out the opportunities. However, he said, ‘Although it’s good they are talking about denuclearisation, there are still hard questions about what exactly does that mean, when is it going to happen and how it is going to be verified?’
North Korea has said that it is prepared to ‘permanently’ scrap its main nuclear complex. It has also said that independent inspectors will be able to monitor the process, although it hasn’t said how deeply they will be allowed to probe.
The BBC’s correspondent in Seoul, Laura Bicker, likened this proposal for inspections to a person setting off to buy a second-hand car. ‘They would be allowed to look at the vehicle but not to kick the tyres,’ she said, reminding her viewers of the superficial nature of such a check.
Japan, a nation which prides itself on high quality auto manufacturing, has disdain for such an arrangement. As far as the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is concerned, the goal remains exactly as he outlined it in September 2017. ‘We must make North Korea abandon all nuclear and ballistic missile use in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner,’ he said. ‘If North Korea does not accept that, then I am convinced there is no way forward other than to continue maximum pressure on it using every possible means,’
Mr Abe is also concerned about the outlook for the US military alliance in Asia. Mr Trump has questioned the cost of keeping soldiers in South Korea and joint military exercises have been suspended for the time being.
America’s allies, including Japan, are wondering where that leaves them. Could one of Mr Trump’s goals be to overturn America’s security strategy in Asia?
I have spoken to a senior figure inside the US army who said: ‘The US needs to send the message that it is fully supporting the peace process and in doing so, is also using sustained military pressure and sanctions. It is a false dichotomy to choose between inter-Korea relations and denuclearisaton, or between inter-Korean relations and the alliance: it’s not that stark a choice.’
Aside from their military alliance, America and South Korea are bound by another powerful force: trade. Mr Trump signed a free trade agreement with South Korea in September, a rare move by a president who is usually suspicious of such deals. It means the allies can present a united front as rich nations, which are well worth befriending. That may entrance Mr Kim as much as a bird’s eye view of Singapore.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a former BBC World Service presenter