Once more, the United States, South Korea, and Japan have confronted a crisis with North Korea. The pattern is now well established. First, there is a provocation—a missile test, a nuclear test, and even worse, the use of force. Next, the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia muster their forces, strengthen their trilateral policy coordination, and sanction the belligerent Pyongyang. The three nations advocate for the accompanying effort by the United Nations Security Council to condemn North Korea’s behavior. Setting aside their political differences, Seoul and Tokyo intensify their military cooperation and Washington calls for greater trilateral unity in confronting a shared security challenge.
In 2017, policymakers in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo found themselves in a similar cycle but with the threat of war ever more real. The dramatic escalation of tensions between President Donald J. Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seemed to bring the region to the brink of a second Korean conflict. But today, just as dramatically, an accelerated series of high-level summits suggests that the Korean Peninsula could be on the brink of peace. President Moon Jae-in met with Kim at Panmunjom, and both Kim and Moon stepped across the line of demarcation at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. The two leaders have embraced a “new era of peace,” with the promise of ending the state of war on the peninsula.
Trump has also said he is willing to meet Kim to discuss denuclearization. CIA director Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang on April 1 to test out that proposition, and as secretary of state, Pompeo had the lead in setting the stage for a meeting in Singapore. The Moon-Kim meeting set up the premise of a negotiated denuclearization process. Trump and Kim will define the contours of that path forward.