For Moon, the summit was a critical waypoint in his efforts to boost inter-Korean exchange. Although the US supports humanitarian assistance to North Korea, which is a critical component of Moon’s overtures to the North, Pyongyang has shown no interest. Furthermore, human-rights issues – from systematic violations of basic rights including food security to the abductions of foreign citizens by Pyongyang – will continue to be an obstacle to the advancement of North Korea’s relations with the US, the South and Japan.
There are those in South Korea and the US who advocate regime change in the North. But this is not a realistic option. A more viable approach is to change North Korea by improving the livelihood of the North Korean people even at the price of living with the ruling Kim dynasty and a dictator and tyrant such as Kim Jong-un. For his part, Kim needs grasp the geopolitical moment (a counterpart in the South who is reaching out and a new administration in Washington eager to make real progress on Korean Peninsula security) for himself and his people and start negotiations.
If Kim is calculating that a submarine with nuclear missiles or the capability to launch cyber-attacks will improve his position, he would be very wrong. This line of thinking comes from a belief that Americans are cowardly, an erroneous assumption made in the past by imperial Japan and Al-Qaeda. Americans and other peoples of democratic nations cherish life and because they value it and will fight to protect their freedoms. Vietnam and other unsuccessful conflicts that the US has been involved in were the result of a lack of legitimacy, not a dearth of courage.
For the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it is now up to Kim to be reasonable and realistic about the challenges that he faces. Kim can negotiate – or he can stonewall and conduct occasional provocations to force compromise from the US and the rest of the world. This is not going to work and is very dangerous brinkmanship. Although the Biden administration is focused on diplomacy to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, the US is still capable of retaliation if attacked or threatened with attack.
Moon and Biden are at opposite stages in their presidencies. Moon is in the final year of his single term, with elections due in March 2022. Biden is less than six months into first year as chief executive. The summit clarified their mutual understanding of their respective positions and perspectives on the key bilateral and regional issues. They know where they stand. It is now up to the two governments to decide how to close the gaps and move forward. After four years of the performative trumping the pragmatic and the need for real progress with the DPRK, the Moon-Biden summit showed that cordial and mature diplomacy is back. This is good news for the world but also a great opportunity for North Korea if Kim Jong-un is smart enough to see the possibilities.