May 6, 2018

How a USB drive sparked the push for Korean peace

Photo: Inter Korean Press Corp/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Korean dynamics are changing at light speed because Kim Jong-un cares far more about economics than his father ever did, per people close to advisers of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Under the hood: A source who has spoken recently with top South Korean government advisers — and who spoke anonymously to preserve their confidences — told me Moon "freaked out" last year when Trump was threatening "fire and fury" against Kim.

  • Moon saw last summer that the White House and Pentagon were working on military options in the event that Kim threatened the U.S.
  • So he went into diplomatic overdrive, using the military crisis to present Kim with economic development plans he'd long wanted to deliver.
  • One story that was widely reported in the South Korean press but didn't get much attention in the U.S. is that, at their April summit, Moon gave a USB drive to Kim.
  • "The USB makes the case to Kim — there really is another path for you," John Delury, an expert in North Korean affairs at Seoul's Yonsei University, told me. He said the USB, which contained a plan for tens of billions worth of economic development in North Korea including railways and energy, sent the message to Kim: "We’re serious about working with you for what we think is your real ambition — to be a wealthy East Asian country."

Delury thinks Trump's abnormalities — his disdain for bureaucratic processes and deliberative decision-making — have helped create abnormal momentum on the Korean Peninsula.

  • "I do give one-third of the credit to the Trump administration," Delury told me. "They ended Strategic Patience and ramped up sanctions. Then they ramped up the military threat, and because we all thought he was crazy enough to take us to war," that forced everyone to act differently.
  • "But he also ramped up diplomacy" by immediately agreeing to meet with Kim. "Maybe if [Trump] asked his advisers, they would’ve stopped him."

What to watch ... Here's what North Korea experts tell me they expect will happen next in the nuclear negotiations:

  1. Kim Jong-un is expected to soon release the three American hostages imprisoned in North Korea.
  2. In the coming weeks, Kim is expected to invite international observers and media to watch him dismantle the Punggye-ri nuclear test site near the Chinese border. (Kim has plenty more nuclear facilities around the country.)
  3. Trump is expected to hold his summit with Kim, possibly at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in either late May or early June. (No media outlet has yet confirmed the details of the summit, which are tightly held. A White House source with knowledge of the arrangements would only tell me that the Trump-Kim meeting will occur after South Korean President Moon Jae-in visits the White House on May 22.)

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