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During a joint news conference on Wednesday with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US President Donald Trump pledged to meet North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, “in the coming weeks.” Mr. Trump said that he hoped “to have a very successful meeting” and before warning that if he thought that meeting “is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go.” But he also made sure to remind those in attendance of the unique position his administration finds itself in, since the US has never “been in a position like this with that regime, whether it’s the father, grandfather or son.” That is because the meeting “which will focus on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” would be the first-ever meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader. Talks will also touch upon issues such as the return of three American prisoners, whose freedom Mr. Trump claimed to be “fighting very diligently” to win. Achieving that objective, while fulfilling the “promise” he made to Abe to help return Japanese captives believed to be held by the regime, is something the US president believes his administration has a “good chance of doing” as a result of the &good dialogue” between both countries.
Before any of the abovementioned discussions can take place, it is important for the Trump administration to know how serious Kim Jong-un is about dismantling his regime’s nuclear weapons and missiles programme—that much is clear in the warning issued by the US president during Wednesday’s news conference. And reports so far, seem to suggest that Kim Jong-un is open to that possibility—last month he spoke of a “phased” and “synchronized” implementation of any denuclearization deal. What that would look like remains unclear. But the pace at which things have shaped up over the past four months leaves plenty of room for optimism since past talks have taken place only after protracted negotiations. The North Koreans have a reputation for being tough negotiators. That hasn’t been the case on this occasion, but the need for caution on the American and South Korean side is warranted, owing in large part to the decades-long struggle to draw out a desirable response from the Kim dynasty in relation to denuclearization.
A worthwhile reminder of this is the Clinton-era experience with the North Koreans, to which many comparisons are being made in light of recent developments. That experience, it is fair to say, was one marked by optimism which eventually gave way to disappointing failure—especially since no such meeting ever materialized. Then-president Clinton found himself in a similar situation to that of Donald Trump, having agreed to meet Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2000, but those talks ultimately collapsed. President Clinton had seriously considered the possibility of traveling to Pyongyang to conclude a missile deal after his secretary of state Madeleine Albright had visited Pyongyang along with other US diplomats to set up the presidential visit. But it later became clear that North Korea and the US were too far apart on the details of the missile pact to justify handing Kim the huge (and long craved) concession of a Clinton visit. Owing to the similarities with that era—Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, like Madeleine Albright, secretly travelled to North Korea to meet Kim in what was the highest level meeting between both countries since 2000, to pave the way for the historic summit—there are sufficient enough reasons to doubt the intentions of the Kim Jong-un regime. Having surprisingly achieved what his two predecessors have failed to do (that is, accept Pyongyang’s invitation to meet Kim Jong-un at a yet to be revealed location), Trump and his administration will want to avoid a repeat of past failures. That begins with confidently knowing that neither side is wasting the other’s time.