The summit that could end a 65-year Cold War: Great expectations, greater ifs . . .

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Amid startling twists, turns and tribulations, the United States is preparing for a once improbable Summit meeting with North Korea to defuse Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile threat.

Earlier in the year the “experts” and those who instinctively know better were predicting a probable war between the U.S. and North Korea. The narrative was that a rhetorically volatile Trump Administration in Washington would militarily counter the blatant and rising military threat from Kim Jong-Un to attack Hawaii or the U.S. mainland.

The bellicose and blustering “Little Rocket Man,” as he was dubbed by the President, seemed to have painted a big target on himself and his quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A military armistice agreement ending the Korean War was reached on July 27, 1953 between the U.S.-led UN Command and the military commands of North Korea and communist China. It was not a peace agreement. / AP
A military armistice agreement ending the Korean War was reached on July 27, 1953 between the U.S.-led UN Command and the military commands of North Korea and communist China. It was not a peace agreement. / AP

What happened? A reality check on all sides.

Despite the heated and dangerous rhetoric, sober reality set in. China did not want a war. Needless to say neither did neighboring South Korea nor Japan. A judicious combination of American military deterrence and behind the scenes diplomacy with Beijing and our East Asian allies in Seoul and Tokyo stopped the ticking doomsday clock.

Since the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea, there’s been a discernible political thaw in the once glacial standoff between both sides of the divided peninsula.

First came Kim’s unexpected secret trip to the Chinese capital. In a scene reminiscent of the “Godfather” movie, China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping, North Korea’s longtime political enabler, summoned Kim to Beijing for a little chat. Basically play nice; China does not want a regional war which would be decidedly bad for business.

Then former CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a clandestine visit to Pyongyang to meet with Kim and sound out the North Koreans on the Summit.

The South/North Summit at Panmunjom at the DMZ followed in April. Both dictator Kim Jong-Un and his democratically elected South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-In, met as fellow Koreans, not as leaders of the estranged Korean nation. The Summit while prompting Style over Substance measures, produced a positive narrative. That’s important.

Yet the legacy of high level of Korean negotiations and Summits is precisely that; High level hype followed by a slide back to the status quo. This happened on a number of occasions most especially following the historic 2000 Sunshine Summit between both sides, where Seoul’s massive economic inducements supported humanitarian aid to the North.

Yet many of the same experts who breathlessly predicted war earlier this year, are now acting as if a deal with the DPRK is somehow done. It’s not.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres applauded the “truly historic summit between the leaders” of the two Koreas. Through a spokesman he stated that “he looks forward to these gains being consolidated and advanced” in the upcoming U.S./ROK Summit.

Now expectations for an elusive deal are in political overdrive. Significantly President Trump has stated that IF the North Koreans don’t come clean on denuclearization and swerve off the Summit agenda on denuclearization, the Donald walks out. As President Trump stated of the upcoming event, “if the meeting when I’m there isn’t fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting.”

Expecting to walkout from the highly scripted diplomatic event may actually be part of President Trump’s wider strategy. Despite such a high stakes sit-down, the President does not seek a deal for its own sake, but rather a security bond ensuring East Asia and the USA of Pyongyang’s verifiable disarmament.

It’s still a big gamble. Naturally Kim Jong-Un will try to “play” the President and very likely create a negotiating position which the American side walks away from. Then the North Koreans will blame Washington for any collapse in the talks. The mainstream media will join the chorus of recriminations.

Indeed Summit diplomacy is usually built upon great expectations if only to counter to the dark alternative of an inevitable clash. One of the biggest words in diplomacy is IF. And If the parties seriously sit down to draft and sign a Peace Treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice ending the Korean War, that would be a great step forward.

Denuclearization of North Korea is far more complicated. Essentially nukes are an insurance policy for the DPRK regime. While Kim will show some superficial flexibility, don’t expect a major breakthrough. The carrot and stick of easing UN sanctions may be employed.

Will the Donald use “The Art of the Deal” diplomacy to finally solve the 65 year old Korean crisis? If he does, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In suggested that there’s a Nobel peace prize for President Trump. If…

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]