IO – Donald Trump’s decision to meet North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jung Un, has been widely viewed as abrupt and a huge gamble. Abrupt because it is a common wisdom a presidential summit is the finishing point after lower-level talks are completed. And it is seen as a huge gamble because many fear if the summit is deemed a failure by either or both sides then there is very little room for the United States and North Korea to recover from the collateral damage. Wise hands in the world of diplomacy think a failed summit could even increase the risk of war.
Still, there are reasons to remain optimistic. Kim telling a group of senior South Korean officials in a meeting on March 6 that he wanted to meet Trump to discuss denuclearization and he would put a temporary halt to tests of missiles and nuclear devices was certainly a step in the right direction.
How we have reached this point is no mystery. There is little doubt Trump’s policy of ‘maximum pressure and engagement’ can be largely credited for bringing Kim to the negotiating table. Unlike previous sanctions levied upon the Kim dynasty for the past quarter of a century, the Trump administration’s strategy of maximum pressure, both economic and military, has had the desired effect. By firmly placing the military option on the table and insisting Beijing cooperate to ensure the economic sanctions worked, Trump made it clear to Kim that he meant business.
As CIA Director Mike Pompeo pointed out in a recent interview, past presidential administrations could be described as “whistling past the graveyard” while the North Koreans advanced their nuclear weapons program. No longer.
Now that the maximum pressureportion of Trump’s strategy has led to the beginning of some sort of engagement, one must question how both sides will position themselves in the summit and a fterwards.
Kim reportedly told his South Korean visitors he would be willing to give up his nukes in return for the right security guarantees. What he exactly means by this is still speculation, but if Kim is seeking, as some think he might, for reunification of the Korean Peninsula and the United States to withdraw its military forces from South Korea, neither of these would be acceptable: South Koreans would be aghast to even consider their poor neighbors and the tyrannical Kim family joining them to form a united Korea, and given the size of North Korea’s conventional military forces and biological weapon capabilities, even a denuclearized version of the regime would be seen as a primordial threat to the south in the absence of the American military.
Similarly, if Trump wants to make a deal, he will have to show some flexibility on the issue of denuclearization. It is high unlikely Pyongyang would consider dismantling its entire nuclear arsenal. Not only has the Kim regime made its nuclear program a source of national pride and rationale for its grip on power, it also looks at the examples of Hussein’s Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya for what could happen if it were to agree to ridding itself of weapons of mass destruction. Surely a more realistic and pragmatic policy position is needed.
Given the fact the proposed summit is two months away, it is unlikely either side will be ready to offer a comprehensive deal or even willing to discuss any details on a possible deal in the future. On the American side, Trump’s State Department has recently lost its top expert on North Korea, and there is still no U.S. ambassador in Seoul. Kim and his top aides are similarly at a loss when it comes to understanding Trump and his strategic intentions: does he really want peace and, if so, what types of concessions would he be willing to offer?
Hence Trump’s advertising the summit as possibly leading to the “greatest deal in the world” is, very simply, far-fetched. Yet, if Kim and Trump can manage to agree on opening up formal diplomatic channels as a prelude to serious lower-level discussions, the summit would prove to be a success. They could also agree to create a direct communications line between Pyongyang and Washington, a measure that would help in reducing tensions and the risk of miscalculation on either side. Given the nasty rhetoric and threats of going to war that has characterized the U.S.- North Korea relationship over the past year, such measures would be widely welcomed by the international community and indeed constitute a ‘big deal’.