South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has proposed holding trilateral peace talks with the DPRK and USA in order to foster continued progress in the Korean peace process and to likewise avoid the possibility of stagnation after the recent DPRK-US Summit in Hanoi concluded without any concrete agreements being made. The fact of the matter is that such a trilateral summit should have been held long ago as South Korea has a major interest in seeing that the peace process succeeds, whilst under the leadership of the peace minded President Moon Jae-in, Seoul likewise offers a unique perspective on regional events that sits somewhere between the positions of the DPRK and United States.
While the magnetic personalities of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have become the public image of the peace process, it cannot be forgotten that the comparatively soft spoken and demure Moon Jae-in was the one who convinced the DPRK that South Korea was genuinely interested in grabbing hold of Kim’s olive branch in a spirit of good faith. It has also been the South Korean government that has helped to convince the wider world that both Korean states are equally committed to forever putting the troubles of the past to rest.
It must further be recalled that in the months prior to last year’s historic Singapore Summit, when at one point Donald Trump dramatically axed his meeting with Kim, it was quiet but persistent South Korean diplomacy which helped both sides to reconcile, thus paving the way for Donald Trump’s first ever meeting with Kim Jong-un, a man he now openly calls his friend.
The Blue House has not only done much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes to ensure a new era in DPRK-US relations unfolds and solidifies, but South Korea in many ways stands to be the biggest beneficiary of the peace process. As a state that had grown used to isolation, whilst the DPRK desires peace, its economy and society were well prepared for the opposite. Likewise, the US mainland was never a realistic target for an attack, even in the event that DPRK-US relations plunged below their 2017 nadir. But for South Korea, the tensions between the DPRK and US caused alarm, forced the country to develop a larger than necessary military apparatus and prohibited both the building of a much desired gas pipeline to Russia, as well as prohibiting direct Belt and Road economic connectivity with China.
By contrast, a Korean peninsula at peace with itself would reduce energy prices in the energy hungry South Korea, would help to foster more trade with China and would assure that costs on security measures could be dramatically cut. Because of this, South Korea’s voice in the peace process is as important in front of the cameras as it is behind the scenes. A state that stands to gain as much from the peace process as South Korea, deserves its perceptive heard as loudly as those of the USA and DPRK.
This is why a summit between Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump is long overdue. Such a summit could potentially be vastly more productive than the separate Kim-Moon and Kim-Trump summits that have taken place thus far. Having input from the three states at the centre of the peace process in a collective environment, would almost certainly help the DPRK and USA to meet each other half way – something which in the aftermath of Hanoi is more important than ever. Throughout the peace process, Seoul has in fact helped to force compromise on both sides. By allowing such compromises to be proposed in real time, President Moon and his colleagues have a crucial role to play in accelerating the progress of peace in Korea.
What is more is that beyond a trilateral Washington-Seoul-Pyongyang meeting, a quintet of China, Russia, both Korean states and the United States would also be a helpful future format in the peace process. In Hanoi, Donald Trump stated that whilst Kim Jong-un is very much his own man, that the DPRK’s neighbours China and Russia also played a deeply constructive role in the peace process. As such, a quintet format could help to offer a wider regional perspective on the matter whilst also helping to assure the DPRK that its traditional partners to the north are being seen as equals in a peace process that up until now has focused perhaps disproportionately on the development of inter-personal relations between Kim and Trump.
In this sense, Washington, Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow should all welcome Seoul’s proposals for a trilateral meeting in order to inject some new energy into a productive peace process that South Korea clearly wants to see succeed at all costs – and apparently as soon as possible. This is clearly the correct path forward.