After the inter-Korean summit, there comes the agonizing Shakespearean question: To trust or not to trust Kim Jong-un, that is the question. Given past failures and dashed hopes, it’s rational to maintain healthy skepticism whether Kim, this time, will ever truly denuclearize – even after the heartening optics of the inter-Korea summit.
Why the world should trust Kim Jong-un
Indeed, suspicion still runs deep among academics and observers in Washington, Seoul and even Beijing.
But the developments in the past few months on the Korean Peninsula have been unprecedented. The inter-Korean summit was more than political theater. It produced substance and also laid the groundwork for a Trump-Kim summit. North Korea has never gone this far.
First, it is important to understand that Kim always meant this to be a “two-part” summit – with South Korean President Moon Jae-in first, and then with US President Donald Trump. The inter-Korean summit was the “opening show” for North Korea’s denuclearization process. It was Moon who induced Kim to commit to “full denuclearization” officially. It was the first time the word “denuclearization” was written into the joint statement.
In other words, now denuclearization is officially on the table as an item for negotiation. This is the key departure from the past, when the concept of North Korea as a nuclear-armed was enshrined in its constitution.
The terms and conditions of denuclearization, including verification methods and a timetable, will be hammered out at the Trump-Kim summit. Trump hasn’t proposed what he will offer to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization.
The Moon-Kim summit was meant to set the tone for the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. The two Koreas also agreed to officially end the Korean War by the year’s end. This is remarkable in its own right. But few outside observers gave due weight to its significance.
Pessimists are correct in pointing out that the inter-Korean summit was “half-successful.” We are halfway through the game. The other half takes place at the Trump-Kim summit. It was designed as such, so that Trump could have the crowning moment of declaring the denuclearization deal. It’s important for Trump to get the credit for the deal, if it will be sustained.
Second, the inter-Korean summit was initially not reported by North Korea’s state media. Therefore, some analysts remain suspicious whether Kim is sincere in his “peace overtures.” Yet, within 24 hours after the summit, North Korean state TV ran the story – covering all aspects of the event, and even including a footage that was not included in South Korean media.
The official Workers’ Party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, splashed as many as 61 photos across four pages of the newspaper’s six-page layout. In this way, Kim was sending a unified message, to both domestic and international audiences, defying external suspicion that he was “playing.”
Kim publicly displayed a desire to have his words taken seriously. In the end, this move reinforces the interpretation that North Korea wants to make a serious deal with Trump. Kim said, “There is no reason for us to possess nuclear weapons while suffering difficulties if mutual trust with the United States is built through frequent meetings from now on, and an end to the war and non-aggression are promised.” It’s a simple yet profound confession that reveals North Korea’s deep-seated insecurity.
Third, the summit preparations in Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington are all being undertaken by intelligence agencies at the highest-level of secrecy. Therefore, very little information was shared with think tanks in Washington. Disconnected from intelligence, these think tanks have resorted to their past habits in looking at North Korea. It partly explains why the predominant media predictions in the US are also on the pessimistic side. This is Kim's opportunity to prove them wrong.
Even when South Korean President Moon’s envoys, who personally met with Kim, visited Washington earlier and briefed the White House about Kim’s commitment to denuclearization, some American officials thought these South Koreans had “misunderstood” Kim, if they hadn’t been fooled outright.
However, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s secret meeting with Kim in Pyongyang, there are an increasing number of “converts” who are willing to test seriously Kim’s overtures. And this includes Trump. After the inter-Korean summit, Trump said: “I don't think they are playing.”
As for China, it will play an important role. After the inter-Korean summit and the Trump-Kim meeting, North Korea will have to engage with China, which will also participate in the deliberations that will lead to a peace treaty. Different regional players will have different roles to play.
Trusting North Korea’s Kim may be a challenging human task. It may therefore take Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” to believe him. The irony of the “leap of faith,” as put forward by the Danish philosopher, is that one should believe first so that one can have faith. This is the most difficult paradox to defend. Trump has decided to test the paradox. We might as well do the same.
Lee Seong-hyon, PhD, is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul.