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[David Ignatius] Path from Pyongyang to Washington leads through Seoul

Koreans have a saying that helps explain the recent upbeat exchanges between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang: “Say pretty things to hear pretty things.”

Beyond the Trump White House, there remains much skepticism that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. Recent leaks about North Korea’s continuing efforts to build its nuclear and missile arsenal underline this concern that President Trump made a sucker play in Singapore. But the public rhetoric from Washington and Pyongyang is warming, after a chill, and it’s backed by some real moves to ease tensions.

The latest sweet talk was President Trump’s tweet Wednesday evening effusively thanking Kim Jong-un “for keeping your word” and returning remains of US soldiers who died in the Korean War. Trump called it a “kind action” and enthused: “I look forward to seeing you soon.”

Last week’s most important conversation on Korea may have been the meeting between a North Korean and South Korean general at the border village of Panmunjom. This was the latest installment of a slow, steady process of engagement between the two Koreas that predates the Trump-Kim summit.

The two generals discussed reducing weapons in the Demilitarized Zone, halting firing exercises and withdrawing artillery along the West Sea coast, according to South Korean reports. South Korean officials would like to turn the heavily mined DMZ into a weapons-free nature preserve as a symbol of progress.

Trump gets the headlines when it comes to North Korea. But the real driver may be inter-Korean contact. Kim signaled in a Jan. 1 speech that he wanted to leverage his nuclear-weapons capability for economic development, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in responded boldly with his Olympic diplomacy. Trump embraced this opening, but he didn’t create it.

The Washington diplomatic mood has been spiking up and down like a fever chart in the nearly two months since the June 12 Singapore summit. American over-optimism about quick denuclearization -- fueled by Trump -- created frustration and disappointment when the North Koreans dragged their feet. US pressure for faster progress brought North Korean protests at supposed “gangster-like tactics.”

The Korean fog has cleared, at least momentarily because of a series of confidence-building measures by Kim that, while they don’t move toward denuclearization, at least suggest good faith. The North Koreans last month dismantled rocket-testing and satellite-launch facilities, and then delivered the promised servicemen’s remains.

Washington wants to begin the denuclearization process with a detailed inventory of North Korean materials and sites. Pyongyang has delayed, at least publicly, seeking more American goodwill gestures.

A key issue ahead for the US and the two Koreas is a proposed joint declaration of the formal end of the Korean War. At their Panmunjom summit on April 27, Moon and Kim pledged this declaration before year-end. The US, so far, has resisted, wanting the North to deliver more on denuclearization.

A formal declaration of the war’s end would foster denuclearization “by alleviating the worries of North Korea over the security of its regime,” argues a factsheet published by South Korea after the Panmunjom summit. Seoul believes that this declaration, perhaps co-signed by China, wouldn’t affect the status of US forces in South Korea. Indeed, Seoul argues that both North and South may privately agree on the utility of US troops as a way of checking Chinese hegemony over the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean Ambassador Cho Yoon-je explained the importance of the end-of-war declaration and other confidence-building measures as a bridge to denuclearization in a recent interview. “It is our firm belief that the enhanced exchange and communications between the two Koreas will help facilitate the denuclearization dialogue,” he said. In other words, the path from Pyongyang to Washington may lead through Seoul.

South Korea is also pushing for North Korea to work with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as a start toward gradual inclusion in the global economy. Cho told me that the IMF and the World Bank “would not only provide loans, but more importantly, also policy advice for economic transition.” Again, the US appears wary of making these concessionary gestures before North Korea takes verifiable steps toward dismantling its nuclear capability.

On July 27, North Korea celebrated the anniversary of its “victory” in the Korean War. Former CIA analyst Robert Carlin notes that previously, the North had boasted that it defeated “US-led imperialist aggressors.” This year’s statement just referred to “imperialists.” In such small semantic changes, we see how large transformations could eventually be wrought.

David Ignatius
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost. -- Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)