Cho Yoon Je is South Korea’s ambassador to the United States.
When North Korea announced last Wednesday that it was postponing high-level inter-Korea talks and might reconsider taking part in the planned summit with President Trump, pundits were quick to say North Korea was up to its old tricks. But my memory went back to a different moment. I recalled my days as a young economist at the International Monetary Fund in the late 1980s when Washington was debating the gloomy prospects of the Cold War. It was impossible to imagine that anything like peace could emerge during that dark time.
Today, the same pall is hovering over Washington regarding the seemingly dimmed hopes for the denuclearization of North Korea. One Korean expert pointed out to me that such skepticism in Washington is based on long-established habit; the world has tried everything, he noted, and Pyongyang has not given up its nuclear weapons no matter what. It is hard to argue against this viewpoint given North Korea’s record. And yet I would still contend that this time is different. That is why we must still give hope a chance, even though there are miles to go and the road will be bumpy.
Back in the 1980s, many in the West initially regarded the Soviet Union’s policies of economic reform and political openness, as well as its stated intention of nuclear arms reduction, with pronounced skepticism. Now we feel that same pessimism once again, this time in respect to North Korea. Some are advising Seoul and Washington that they should, instead, recall the opportunities that presented themselves in the second half of the 1980s. The grim history of the Cold War did not stop Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan from reaching for a chance at peace.
Reagan, despite intense opposition, chose to steadily move forward to make accommodations through several summit meetings with Gorbachev, concluding in a major arms-control agreement. On June 12, 1987, Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Thirty-one years later to the day, the world is expected to watch the historic summit between Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un, a scene no one could have anticipated without Trump’s audacious decision to move forward.
Reagan was not the only pioneer to seek world peace during a period of intense confrontation. In 1963, less than a year after the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy visited the topic of peace in an inspiring commencement speech at American University. He spoke out against those who criticized him for being naive: “Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace . . . Our problems are manmade — therefore, they can be solved by man.” We believe such idealism lives on today in the world under American leadership.
We are fully aware of the nature of the North Korean regime. We cannot afford to lose hope, however, that Kim may choose a different path from his father and grandfather. Unlike in the past, we have seen and are about to witness several significant diplomatic actions at the highest level among the main countries involved, including this week’s meeting between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington, and the summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore.
In addition to this political momentum, Kim is implementing meaningful economic changes in North Korea that must be acknowledged. Many economists have stressed the limits of socialist economic systems, exemplified by the failed experiment of the Soviet Union. Kim, however, has implemented a number of reforms to reduce inefficiency in several economic sectors. It is reported that there are more than 450 private markets operating in North Korea. Rather than forcing farmers to be part of cooperatives, the government has assigned each of them 2.5 acres of land to work and cultivate, providing more incentives for productivity growth. Most notably, on April 20, Kim adopted a new strategic policy that made economic growth the nation’s top priority. Many analysts note that these measures are hard to decelerate or reverse, giving North Korea more reasons to denuclearize and focus on economic growth.
These dynamics, combined with strong commitments by leaders toward denuclearization, provide unprecedented opportunities. It is vital that we focus on making the best use of these historic opportunities by encouraging Kim to stay on track with his commitments to denuclearization and showing him a vision toward a brighter future for North Korea and its people.
South Korea today is one of the greatest achievements of American diplomatic engagement. More than 36,000 U.S. soldiers died in a land they hardly knew before the Korean War. Today, our economy is more than 350 times larger and trade has increased 1,900 times — due in large part to those Americans who gave their lives in our defense. Consolidating permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula would be a fitting final chapter of that story of American sacrifice and diplomatic success. It is why we must seize this opportunity, however bright or dim the prospects might seem. As Kennedy said in that same commencement address: “Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable.”