North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Photo credit: Dan Scavino, Jr.

This editorial by C. Harrison Kim, assistant professor of history at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, ran in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on February 10, 2019.

The first Trump-Kim meeting last June was a weird, yet promising, diplomatic show. The second summit, slated for later this month in Vietnam, is a moment for the two countries to really talk about a pathway toward partnership. This will be a difficult task but we must recognize an important and unprecedented motion: One of our country’s longest-standing adversaries is willingly—and peacefully—trying to become our partner. We should welcome North Korea’s pro-America turn.

The meeting will mainly focus on three issues: officially ending the Korean War, abolishing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and lifting United Nations economic sanctions on North Korea. The first issue of ending the Korean War is very achievable and is likely to happen soon because, in principle, no side opposes it. The problem was always the aversion of the United States and North Korea talking to each other, but now that the three governments are trying to engage constructively for the first time, ending the war has become the most achievable and symbolically important task.

The second issue of abolishing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is contentious, but the reality is that denuclearization is actually happening in North Korea. The more unpredictable side here is the U.S., which is unable to come to a consensus on denuclearization because of its fragmented domestic political landscape. North Korea has taken significant steps in the process, including stopping all future weapons testing, shutting down the Punggyeri nuclear test site and closing the Sohae rocket launch facility. The other missile sites recently reported in the media, which were thought to be a sign of North Korea’s uncooperative nature, are not nuclear weapons facilities. The U.S. needs to remain vigilant but it is time to recognize North Korea’s efforts toward abolishing its nuclear weapons system.

The third issue of lifting U.N. economic sanctions depends on the kind of future the U.S. envisions. In rhetoric and action, North Korea has shown that it has chosen the path of economic liberalization and partnership. At the next meeting, the U.S. should agree to support the lifting of U.N. economic sanctions. The potential for mutual economic benefit is significant, especially through joint ventures with South Korea. While Kim Jong-il’s time was about nuclear development and military order, Kim Jong-un’s time is about becoming part of the global economy—not too different from Vietnam, which was chosen as the place of February’s meeting because of its own evolved relationship with the U.S.

Whether in terms of geopolitical strategy, vis-à-vis China, economic opportunities, or greater expansion of peace, forming a partnership with North Korea makes sense for the U.S.

As people living in Hawaiʻi, we know firsthand the possible threat that can arise from the hostility between the U.S. and North Korea. Yes, the White House does little to gain the support of liberals and the left (my own position). And yes, North Korea has carried out its equal share of anti-U.S. practices. But these are changing times—in our favor in this case—and international diplomacy involves long-term visions. The days of vilification and disdain toward North Korea are behind us, while the next Trump-Kim meeting will have resonance for many years to come.