In recent days, Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that Kim Jong Un agreed in Singapore to the denuclearization of North Korea. But Kim agreed to no such thing. What he actually agreed to during his summit with the U.S. president was to “work toward” the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This isn’t some trivial semantic distinction. Reconciling these two goals may well be what everything—resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis, establishing peace and economic exchange between North and South Korea, even determining the future geopolitical order of Northeast Asia—depends on. And the path to doing so remains utterly mysterious.
In May, however, I heard one detailed vision from a top aide to South Korean President Moon Jae In, who has played a critical role in steering international diplomacy with North Korea over the past several months. Chung In Moon, a special adviser for foreign affairs and national security, suggested that the two Koreas, the United States, and possibly China could declare an end to the Korean War, which concluded with an armistice in 1953, by the end of this year—notably before the denuclearization of North Korea has been completed.
As we sat in his office in Seoul, Moon walked me through what might come next: a years-long process of “reciprocal exchanges” involving nuclear concessions from North Korea and political, security, and economic concessions from the United States and its partners, with the end result a peace treaty that would be finalized alongside the North’s full nuclear disarmament. He proposed a novel idea for how to provide the Kim government with security assurances that went beyond “a piece of paper”: allow American investors to start doing business in North Korea. If there are “Americans working in North Korea, then there is very little chance that the U.S. will take military action against North Korea,” Moon argued. “There’s got to be a real American presence.”