US-North Korea Summit: Small Steps But No Breakthrough

The notion of the US President Donald Trump meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has appeared illusory over the past year as tensions over Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile programs have continued to climb. Surprisingly, this has dramatically shifted in recent weeks after a series of inter-Korea meetings and now the looming possibility of a US-North Korea summit. Following their meeting with Trump, top South Korean diplomats reported the news at a hastily arranged press conference at the White House. South Korea’s National Security Advisor, Chung Eui-yong, explained that Trump had agreed to meet with the North Korean President by the end of May, aiming to achieve “permanent denuclearization.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders further explained that North Korea has made promises to denuclearize, allow joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, and halt nuclear and missile testing. Questions surround what North Korea exactly means by “denuclearize” and what Trump is risking with such a highly publicized summit. If these talks go forward, it would be the first meeting between the two countries. No sitting President has ever met, or even spoken on the phone with a North Korean leader.

High-level talks between the two leaders have been unthinkable after the barrage of insults between the two sworn enemies. Despite Trump being dismissed as a “senile dotard” and Kim Jong-un the Korean “rocket man” threatening US mainland, these two leaders may have more in common than meets the eye. Their eccentric hairstyles, favouring dynastic succession, massive egos and love of propaganda come to mind. Nonetheless, North Korea’s capabilities are indeed close to posing a threat to US mainland and the wider world. This has been a growing global security threat since the resumption of the Korean War that concluded in 1953 without the signing of a peace treaty. Therefore, the possibility of high-level talks between the two opposing President’s have defused those fears somewhat. The European Union, China, and Russia all welcome the move.

Given the North’s deeply destabilizing nuclear and ballistic missile programs, there is a necessity for greater diplomacy and communication with Kim Jong-un. Trump has responded with a “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy that involves tighter sanctions, improved deterrence with South Korea and Japan, as well as warnings of using military force against the regime. In this context, it’s exciting to see a chance for greater communication with the North. However, the North Korean administration has a long history in reaching out during a crisis, usually offering dialogue in order to win aid and concessions.

While Trump has been encouraged to try open diplomacy with the North, many have warned that the President did not seem to have a thought-through plan for what could be reasonably achieved. Despite Trump seeing himself as a masterful negotiator, Colin Kahl, a former National Security Official in the Obama administration explained that “he isn’t thoughtful or steeped in the types of details required for this type of diplomacy. He is prone to manipulation and flattery. He often makes threats and he doesn’t follow through on and promises he can’t or won’t keep. And he often throws allies under the bus. This does not add up to a recipe for success, and the stakes could not be higher.” Put simply, this isn’t a reality show, it’s global security that is at stake.

There is little chance that Kim Jong-un will halt his one main insurance card – the nuclear program – since Kim has gambled his regime legitimacy on the development of nuclear weapons. Wendy R Sherman, the head negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal with the Obama administration explained that “North Korea is not going to rush to denuclearize. They are about dominance, respect and the reunification of the peninsula on it’s own terms.” Therefore, there will be diverging expectations at this proposed meeting, with Washington expecting tangible results and commitment towards denuclearization. Pyongyang is focusing on security assurances and acceptance of its status as a nuclear weapons state. If the Trump administration leaves the meeting without a firm path towards the complete denuclearization of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and ballistic program, the gamble of the meeting will be a failure.

Therefore, it’s imperative to slow down before labelling this proposed summit as a breakthrough or the beginning of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. To date, there has been no effective change to the North’s destabilizing nuclear and ballistic missile program. Despite reports that Kim Jong-un is willing to discuss denuclearization, there has been no concrete signs that they are willing to negotiate in good faith, especially as North Korea is yet to officially outline the details of what the country is willing to compromise. Combined with the fact that North Korea has a long history of breaking promises, this proposed meeting should be met with caution rather than labelling it as a breakthrough.

It’s difficult to imagine international spectators investigating North Korea’s military sites after state officials have continually claimed that it’s their state’s sovereign right to possess nuclear and ballistic weapons. As a result, it’s unlikely that Kim Jong-un will swiftly denuclearize as his regime heavily relies upon its nuclear weapons program as an insurance plan for survival. For this reason, Trump’s all-or-nothing approach regarding denuclearization is unwise. Instead, the Trump administration should focus on a mutually advantageous agreement to slowly diminish the number of weapons in the North. This would ensure stabilization of the situation and potentially limit the rate of growth of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and ballistic program. The freeze would also prevent the North from continuing to dangerously test over Japan. If Kim honoured these agreements, the Trump administration will need to reciprocate by potentially modifying its joint exercises in the Korean Peninsula and diminishing military provocations.

To compliment this mutually advantageous agreement, there are a number of other points to consider. Firstly, it would be important to reaffirm the principles of the 2005 Six-Party Talks Joint Statement, as this is the only time when North Korea committed in writing to abandoning it’s nuclear and ballistic missile program. The US also stated that it would not militarily attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons. As parties of the agreement, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China would all seemingly support and reaffirm these agreed principles. In addition, if the summit is to have any chance of success, Trump should also embark on a diplomatic press tour in the region. This should involve sending US diplomats to South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China to coordinate common negotiating points before the summit. This diplomatic tour would also assure the neighbouring states that Trump won’t sacrifice their security interests either. Lastly, as a goodwill gesture, the next scheduled joint military exercises between the US and South Korea should not involve killing the enemy’s leader. This would demonstrate sensitivity towards Kim Jong-un’s concerns. Therefore, focusing on a mutually advantageous agreement that diminishes the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile program while the US promises to modify joint exercised and decrease military provocations ensures stabilization of the region and the growth of the North’s nuclear program. With a long history of North Korea approaching diplomatic conversations concerning denuclearization – and all falling through – it’s difficult to envision Trump securing a deal.