Yes, the Trump-Kim DMZ Meeting Was a Breakthrough. Here is What Should Come Next | Opinion

Over the weekend, President Donald Trump did what no sitting U.S. sitting president has done: he crossed the demarcation line dividing the two Koreas at Panmunjom and set foot on North Korean soil. Not only that, he greeted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and together they traversed the cement border and met South Korean President Moon Jae In. Then, President Trump sat down with Kim for a 50-minute conversation in the Freedom House in South Korea.

Who could have imagined all that could have been orchestrated with a single tweet from Trump as he departed the G-20 Summit in Osaka: "After some very important meetings, including my meeting with President Xi of China, I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon). While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!"

With the world's cameras on them, Trump invited Kim to the White House. With National Security Advisor John Bolton notably absent, Trump and Kim agreed to restarting working-level talks, with U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun taking the lead. "We moved mountains," Trump said as he departed the DMZ. "The meeting was a very good one, very strong... We're not looking for speed, we're looking to get it right."

Last year's Singapore Summit was repeatedly and forcefully denounced as a failure, but if anything, it's proved that meeting and talking works. Less than a year before, Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un had traded threats and military provocations. Now that high-level trust appears to have been established, we need reliable, sustained diplomacy to end the seven-decade Korean War.

As someone who has crossed the DMZ in 2015 with 30 women peacemakers including Gloria Steinem and two Nobel Peace Laureates, and has since been engaging with women leaders from all sides and from countries that participated in the Korean War, I have a few insights on what the Trump administration will need to get right to achieve peace and denuclearization.

Last week, I sat down with senior officials from the Trump and Moon administrations and with the DPRK Mission to the United Nations. I discussed ways my organization's network of women could support the peace process, especially given the evidence that women's participation leads to more durable peace agreements. What struck me was that in contrast to the blame game being played in public, everyone individually shared a desire for a diplomatic breakthrough.

So how can this breakthrough be achieved?

The most important step is to clear the slate of the so-called Bolton Libya model, which caused the peace process to fall apart in Hanoi. The Trump administration insisted on the immediate, complete and unilateral nuclear disarmament of North Korea before improving relations — a clear nonstarter for Kim. Reuters confirmed that "U.S. President Donald Trump handed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a piece of paper that included a blunt call for the transfer of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and bomb fuel to the United States." The North Koreans countered with a proposition for an interim deal of dismantling Yongbyon, the heart of its nuclear program, and the formal halting of nuclear and missile testing, in exchange for the partial lifting of sanctions. Both sides walked and relations have been kept on life support by "excellent" and "beautiful" letters exchanged between Kim and Trump.

But love letters will not end a seven-decade war. And time is not on their side. In his April speech to the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim signaled to Washington that they had until the end of this year to change their negotiating stance before what we can all guess will be a return to provocations. Meanwhile, as one senior Trump administration official told me, the "gale winds of the 2020 election" will make a diplomatic breakthrough impossible.

The good news is that, for now, the Bolton model (including Bolton himself being sent to Mongolia while Trump met Kim), seems to have been tabled for a more pragmatic and realistic approach. While unverified, The New York Times reported Sunday that the Trump administration may have agreed to an interim deal allowing North Korea to maintain its nuclear weapons (between 20 to 60) but freeze the production of nuclear material and testing.

But even once the Trump administration abandons the Bolton model for good, it still faces three hard realities, if it wants to resume dialogue towards achieving North Korea's denuclearization.

First, sanctions won't force North Korea to denuclearize, and President Xi's first trip to Pyongyang has made it clear that China will provide relief before any breaking point is reached. Instead, sanctions are harming innocent civilians. There is widespread consensus among the humanitarian community that sanctions are impeding the ability of aid agencies and NGOs to provide life-saving medicine, food, and materials to the most vulnerable in North Korea. According to a May 2019 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program, 40 percent of North Koreans are in dire need of food aid, in part due to sanctions.

Furthermore, sanctions harm the civilian economy by limiting the country's ability to import oil needed for cooking, heating, and running tractors. They're also hurting industries like textiles, which employs possibly hundreds of thousands of workers, of which 98 percent are women.

At a meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Korean women Parliamentarians last March, Esther Lee, a North Korean defector living in Michigan, said sanctions have a counterproductive effect on ordinary North Koreans. "What will improve the ordinary North Korean people's situation is more engagement with people from the outside world, not less," she told us.

Second, engaging in peace talks with North Korea is not a gift to Kim Jong Un or his government but a morally just decision that also advances all of our security. This argument really hit home for me and my family in 2018 when we experienced the false alarm of a North Korean missile attack on Hawaii. For my relatives in South Korea, this is the constant anxiety they live with. But for over 400 days following the Singapore Summit, Pyongyang did not conduct a single test while engaging Washington and Seoul. This calmed the nerves of 80 million Koreans living on the peninsula and in the diaspora and thousands of American soldiers and their families serving on dozens of U.S. military bases in the region.

Lastly, and certainly most significantly, peace is the only path to denuclearization. North Korea will not unilaterally disarm given the U.S. record with Iran, Libya and Iraq, much less their own experience surviving indiscriminate U.S. bombing during the Korean War, which killed one in four North Koreans and flattened 80 percent of their cities.

It's time to acknowledge that the root cause of the nuclear crisis is the continuing state of war between the United States and North Korea. The Korean War is not over: we have yet to replace the 1953 ceasefire with a formal peace agreement. The North Koreans have repeatedly declared that they are developing nuclear weapons because of America's "hostile policy." Moon Chung-in, President Moon's senior advisor on North Korea, explained that security assurances in the form of an end-of-war declaration or nonaggression pact "doesn't cost the U.S. any money." I would add that they will give us a lot by helping to create peace and stability in Northeast Asia and the world.

To achieve North Korea's denuclearization requires peace and normalization of relations. This necessitates reciprocal goodwill steps, and patient long-term work—not a grand bargain demanding everything at the front end of a process with a promise for the future.

Christine Ahn is the executive director of Women Cross DMZ and international coordinator of the global feminist campaign, Korea Peace Now! Women Mobilizing to End the War.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​