Trump-Kim: will they or won’t they?

Summit is no certainty

Daniel Fazio

International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

21 March 2018

Let’s face it – it’s probably not going to happen. But even if it does, there are significant hurdles to overcome to get a positive outcome, Daniel Fazio writes.

President Trump’s acceptance of Kim Jong-un’s offer of a face-to-face meeting has been greeted with surprise, anticipation, incredulity and, most tellingly, caution. If you are the gambling type, the smart money might be on the meeting not going ahead at all.

If Trump and Kim are to meet, there are many roadblocks and significant obstacles to be tackled in order to truly diffuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Sweden’s talks with American and North Korean officials aimed at possibly hosting the summit reflects Stockholm’s history as a neutral diplomatic broker in seemingly intractable disputes. Indeed, former Swedish foreign minister, Hans Blix, in his role as Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, played a prominent role in the UN involvement in the 1994 and 2002 North Korean nuclear crises.

Sweden’s involvement shows that agreeing on a mutually acceptable summit venue will be the first obstacle Washington and Pyongyang must overcome. Pyongyang and Moscow are unacceptable to Trump, and Washington, Seoul and Tokyo are unacceptable to Kim.

Three comparable precedents cast doubt on the likelihood of a Trump-Kim meeting.

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In June 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in the first inter-Korean summit since the division of the peninsula in 1945.

This was followed in October the same year by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s meeting with Kim Jong-il, also in Pyongyang.

The second inter-Korean summit took place in October 2007, when South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met Kim Jong-il again in Pyongyang.

The current South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un are scheduled to hold the third inter-Korean summit in late April in Panmunjom – inside the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas and where the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953.

These precedents cast doubt on a Trump-Kim meeting because the Kim dynasty has shown a propensity to want to hold high-level meetings attracting international attention in North Korea. It is inconceivable that Trump would travel to meet Kim in Pyongyang because doing so would gift him and his regime a monumental propaganda victory.

Two other possible summit venues are also highly problematic: Beijing or the DMZ. Beijing would welcome hosting Trump and Kim and, indeed, President Xi Jinping would relish the opportunity to be seen as an international statesman.

However, while Beijing may be acceptable to Kim, it may not be to Trump who would not want to appear beholden to China – a country now engaged in a regional power play with America and also North Korea’s major lifeline.

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The DMZ, too, could be acceptable to Kim but not to Trump. The US president would be diminished by the spectacle of meeting with the leader of a regime that has been a constant irritant to the US since the Korean War, in an isolated village that symbolises the division of the two Koreas and the tensions this has spawned since 1953.

Should a Trump-Kim summit indeed take place, the ongoing tensions between North Korea, the US and the other four regional powers (China, South Korea, Russia and Japan) will not be resolved in one meeting.

The Kim regime will not negotiate away its nuclear and missile program because it is the only leverage it has. The US may have to accept a nuclear North Korea to break the impasse, but this remains an unlikely prospect.

Kim Jong-un has much more to gain from a summit than Trump. A meeting would enhance Kim’s international status wherever it is held. As the leader of the smaller and weaker nation, he will share the same stage as the leader of the pre-eminent global superpower.

Trump’s sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in part because of disagreements over North Korea, and his replacement by the much more hawkish Mike Pompeo, is unlikely to inspire confidence among America’s allies that a summit could provide a pathway for a genuine reduction in regional tensions. A summit also risks diminishing Trump’s diplomatic authority because it’s unlikely any real tangible results would emerge from meeting with Kim.

China’s increased enforcement of the international sanctions against North Korea may be the reason Kim has offered to meet with Trump. Kim may also have offered to meet believing Trump would refuse, thereby allowing Kim to appear as peacemaker and Trump the aggressor.

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Trump’s willingness to attend a summit may have wrong-footed Kim. Pyongyang could now be scrambling to find a way for Kim to avoid looking like he is the one who does not want to negotiate.

But historically, Pyongyang has always repeated the same cycle: escalating tensions, blackmailing the regional powers into making concessions, and appearing to engage in diplomacy despite having no intention of making any verifiable agreements.

For example, North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in 1994 pledging to halt its nuclear program in return for energy aid. Yet, in 2002, Pyongyang admitted that it had surreptitiously continued its nuclear program. In 2003 North Korea agreed to the Six-Party talks only to obfuscate for six years before withdrawing from these talks in 2009.

Despite strong doubts about whether the summit will take place, and even though Trump and Kim aren’t exactly likely to top a list of international statesmen, their meeting would still be a positive diplomatic development.

Flags, fanfare and diplomatic language are infinitely preferable to more missile and nuclear tests, a military build-up in the region, “fire and fury” rhetoric, personal insults, immature bravado about who has the bigger nuclear button, and threats about the damage the respective US and North Korean weapons arsenals can inflict on each other.

The US and North Korea can make some gains from a Trump-Kim summit. But if the smart money is wrong and their meeting takes place, it will only be a beginning. There will be many potholes in the long road ahead.

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