How the 'historic' Korean meeting fell short

Harry J. Kazianis, director of defense studies, Center for the National Interest.
Key Points
  • North and South Korean leaders met Friday for a historic summit
  • History is likely to judge this meeting as nothing more than a Potemkin summit—filled with photos designed to pull at your heart, when in fact, zero was achieved.
  • It's up to the Trump administration to aggressively move the talks forward or walk away.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un share a toast at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.
Korea Summit Press Pool | Pool | Reuters

If you stayed up late, like me, to watch the big summit between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and South Korea President Moon Jae-in you likely wasted, like me, what could have been a good night's sleep or a fun night on the town.

I fear, at least for the moment, history will judge this meeting as nothing more than a Potemkin summit—filled with countless photos designed to pull at your heart, when in fact, zero was achieved.

The optics could not have been any better, having almost a cinematic feel to it all. But the only movie that was emulated here was the geopolitical equivalent of Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. North Korea, once again, made promise after promise while gaining more and more time to build evermore advanced nuclear weapons and missiles to mount them on.

There were some meaningful aspects to this summit that are worth noting.

First, the moment when Kim and Moon shook hands, with Kim crossing over to South Korea, was truly historic. Then, Kim offered, and Moon accepted, the North Korean dictator's invitation to cross over briefly to the North Korean side to shake hands and take photos, also truly historic.

Next, the sheer amount of potential—and that is the key word, potential—promises made was certainly eye opening. Both sides will work hard to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, a promise only Kim Jong Un can truly fulfill.

And both nations also agreed to push forward, bringing in other nations like the U.S. and China, to sign an agreement to formally end the Korean War—a cold war vestige that certainly needs to discarded in the trash heap of history once and for all.

What happens next

This is where things get tricky. All the promises in the world, and a summit deigned to wow the international community, is meaningless unless it is followed up with concrete actions to fulfill its promise. Otherwise, the world's collective time, and hope, has been wasted.

What must happen now is the Trump Administration must push North Korea to turn its lofty promises into action. That means for the even bigger summit to take place between Trump and Kim, North Korea must put pen to paper, sharing with Team Trump how it plans to denuclearize.

For example, the U.S must demand that Kim layout a concrete plan, along with a timeline, of how it will give up its nuclear weapons. That plan should also include an agreement for the full accounting of all of Kim's atomic arms; a listing of all materials he can use to make additional nuclear weapons as well as a detailed accounting of North Korea's various offensive missiles.

But we should also make sure we get from Pyongyang what so far no one has been willing to ask: what does Kim want for his nuclear weapons and missiles?

Indeed, this is the lynch pin of our whole negotiation with North Korea. This is how we will be able to tell if Kim is serious about denuclearizing, or, we will know we have all been played.

Team Trump and South Korea must demand from Kim his own demands for giving up his atomic arsenal. We will then have a sense if we can meet those demand—which could be quite steep.

In fact, in 2010, North Korea asked for $10 billion dollars just to attend a summit with South Korea. One can only imagine his asking price to give up the only weapon of war that could stop a future U.S. or allied effort at deposing his regime. Before we go any further with Pyongyang, we need to know what Kim really is after.

If we can ascertain firm answers, and Kim is truly willing to give up his nuclear weapons and submit to inspections, and we can meet his demands, then we have every reason for President Trump and Kim to meet. If not, and North Korea continues to demand extended talks that could go on for months or years, we know Kim is truly recycling the family playbook. And Trump needs to walk away.

Commentary by Harry J. Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. He also serves as executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously served as part of the foreign policy team for the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Ted Cruz. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.

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