Spring is Coming” is the title of the performances a South Korean art troupe will hold in North Korea early next month. Indeed, the event, which reciprocates a similar visit by a North Korean group, symbolizes that warm spring has come to relations between the two Koreas.
The rapid thaw started with the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics last month. It was accompanied by exchanges of high-level delegates, which led to the agreement to hold an inter-Korean summit next month and a US-North summit in May.
With the reconciliatory mood running high, the two Koreas will hold high-level talks Thursday, the first round of meetings to prepare summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The focus of the Moon-Kim meeting, the third of its kind between the leaders of the two Koreas, is of course denuclearizing the North, and their agreements and disagreements will set the tone for the planned talks between US President Donald Trump and Kim.
As things stand, Kim’s decision to meet both Moon and Trump has brightened hopes that the North Korean nuclear issue could be settled through negotiations. Kim is also believed to be visiting Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders about his plan to meet the South Korean and US leaders.
But not all the latest developments are reassuring. We still don’t know what exactly is on Kim’s mind and what course of action he will take on denuclearization. Another big factor complicating the situation is Trump’s decision to shake up his foreign policy and security team.
In an apparently premeditated action, Trump replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Director of Central Intelligence Agency Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton. It is clear that Trump wants to have hard-liners by his side.
It is possible that Trump filled the key security posts with hard-liners to toughen US policy against countries like Iran and North Korea. Some also say that Trump recruited them in consideration of the growing challenges to the US global hegemony by China and Russia, where leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have further consolidated their power.
Whatever the motive may be, the installation of the hard-liners, especially Bolton, a notorious conservative firebrand who has held hawkish views on North Korea, will have a considerable impact on Trump’s decisions on the North Korean nuclear issue and future developments in US-North relations.
Bolton, who served as undersecretary of state and US ambassador to the UN and during the George W. Bush administration, has long advocated regime change in the North and military actions to remove the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Immediately after his nomination as the top security adviser to Trump, Bolton seemed to be cautious, saying that what he had said in private was behind him. But he did not spend a long time before reiterating his hardline views of the North Korean regime, especially its time-buying tactic.
“They’ve got a fairly limited number of things they need to do in North Korea to make their nuclear warheads actually deliverable on targets in the US,” Bolton said in an interview.
“So they want to try and slow roll the negotiations to buy more time. This is something they’ve done consistently over the last 25 years.” Taking months to prepare for the meeting would “simply play into the North Korean playbook,” he said.
These comments coming ahead of the crucial summit meeting indicate that Trump will -- as Bolton said -- have a “very straightforward” and concrete discussion -- not a theoretical discussion -- with Kim when it comes to denuclearization.
Which means that Trump, with hawks by his side, may make the talks -- the first-ever between the leaders of the two countries -- a make or break moment on denuclearization.
In other words, a failure of the Trump-Kim talks will surely raise the possibility of the US going for tougher actions, including military options, to remove nuclear devices and missiles from Kim’s hands.
The possibility of a pre-emptive or preventive strike against key facilities in the US has been raised whenever Trump or his aides said that his administration would not repeat the same mistakes committed by the previous administrations and that all options are on the table.
With Trump set to be surrounded by hard-liners, the likely of that happened. This is one of the messages Kim should read from Trump’s decision to pick people like Pompeo and Bolton.