By Choi Sung-jin
Two weeks from now, you will meet U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam, having your second date in about eight months.
Your first meeting in Singapore last June proved terrific, at least for you and your people. The U.S. leader, who had long mocked and threatened you, confessed that he and you "fell in love" after just hours of seeing each other, making some of Trump's close friends, especially Shinzo Abe, mortally jealous of you.
Trump is, of course, an old and shrewd ex-realty dealer very good at hiding his inner feelings. Nor can one predict what this whimsical and megalomaniacal politician's next move will be. Anyway, so far, so good, it seems.
It would help if you thought of what you've "actually" got in the following months, however.
You have refrained from conducting nuclear tests and missile launches for nearly 15 months, destroyed some testing facilities and launch pads, and repatriated the remains of fallen U.S. soldiers during the Korea War seven decades ago.
Your critics say these are all cosmetic moves that did not weaken your nuclear ability in any significant way. Still, these were better than what you got in return ― suspension of annual war games jointly held by the U.S. and South Korea ― probably because realistic Trump thought of them as a waste of money.
To sum up, you have given not much in substance and received even less. If your second meeting with Trump ends up in a similar way, both you and your U.S. counterpart will face a significant backlash at home, to the point of losing momentum to go on. That may explain why representatives of you and Trump had an unusually long working-level meeting in Pyongyang recently, and plan to do so again in the lead-up to your Feb. 27-28 reunion.
Guessing games are now rampant in the capitals of involved countries over what you and Trump are ready to give and take a couple of weeks from now. Pessimists say there will be another "small deal," but optimists bet on a "big deal" while realists opt for a "midsize deal" in between. Even the so-called experts have different definitions and standards as to what is big or small.
The consensus here, however, seems to regard it a small deal if you stop at promising to destroy nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and/or suspend developing ICBMs, and Trump eases part of economic sanctions by, for instance, agreeing to the resumption of inter-Korean industrial projects or give security guarantees in abstract terms.
If you present a comprehensive roadmap on denuclearization, complete with a specific schedule, and Trump reciprocates it with the assurance of diplomatic normalization and drastic lifting of sanctions, it will be a big deal. The midsize deal will be somewhere in between, content with declaratory accord but without specific action plans or a timetable.
For your South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, a small deal could be worse than no deal at all by guaranteeing the security of only Americans and giving you some economic breathing room while continuing to expose the South to your nuclear weapons.
You'd better avoid alienating the South like this not least because much of real economic aid will come from Seoul, not Washington, particularly in the early stages of your economic reform. Nor will you be able to remain in the gray zone by seeking an abstract midsize deal. That leaves you with only one final option ― seeking a big deal.
I, of course, understand your anxiety. It is not certain your U.S. counterpart will remain at his post for another two years. Your late father saw the hard-won deal in 1994 go up in smoke with the change of political power in America. The situation may not be very different in South Korea in this regard if Moon keeps losing his approval rating like now because of poor economic performances.
Ironically, however, the political uncertainty in these democratic countries is why you should step up building trust with Washington and Seoul. Trump's Democratic successor will be a far stricter negotiator, maybe a woman. Moon's conservative successor will undo most of what the liberal leader did, as Lee Myung-bak did with Roh Moo-hyun.
Many experts on both sides of the Pacific are skeptical you will give up nuclear weapons entirely. You must prove these wet blankets wrong by presenting clearly what you would do and expect to get from America in return. You may be afraid you would follow the paths of Moammar Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein. However, you don't have to if you judge well.
As I know, you adhered to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, instead of holiday resort Da Nang, as the venue for rendezvous. That must be because you want to learn from the Southeast Asian country's successful transformation from the archenemy of America and impoverished country to one of the U.S. best friends and prospering "socialist market" economy.
It would be best if you persuaded Trump and other U.S. officials your weapons program was not for nuclear armament but disarmament. To win the heart of a half-hearted lover, one needs to be bolder and more candid. Time has not been on your side and will never be, either.
Choi Sung-jin is a Korea Times columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.