In the last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has continued to channel the good cop side of his personae, which started with his New Year’s Day offer to take part in the South Korean Olympics. Yesterday, the White House announced that it had received an offer from the North for President Trump to meet with Kim in the next two months to talk about security and nuclear weapons—a proposal the White House accepted.
This situation offers reasons for both optimism and concern.
On the one hand, Kim has offered to engage with the United States and talk about denuclearization, which the US has insisted on, and to suspend nuclear and missile tests during any talks. These steps help reduce the current tensions between the two countries that have led to fears that the Trump administration would attempt a preemptive military strike on North Korea—which could lead to devastating conflict in the region.
Moreover, having a high-level summit with Kim is likely the best way to make progress on these issues with a country that is built around top-down leadership. We have seen important progress in negotiations in the past when Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il were personally involved in discussions. Kim is the only one capable of making big decisions.
And Kim’s apparent willingness not to let the resumption of US-South Korean military exercises, which were delayed for the Olympics, get in the way of talks suggests he is willing to drop his long-standing opposition to the exercises to allow the summit to take place.
So, in principle, this offers an opening for the United States to understand what is possible in moving ahead to mitigate a serious security problem. And President Trump is in a much better position to gain congressional support for any deal he makes than President Clinton was following the 1994 Agreed Framework.
As one analyst has put it, talk of a summit offers an opportunity for “skillful American negotiators to convene an exploratory discussion” with North Korea.
However, it is not at all clear that the Trump administration has the skillful negotiators for this job or is in the mood to undertake a real “exploratory discussion.”
This comes at a time when the US State Department is severely under-staffed, and just a week after the department’s highest level official on North Korea, Joseph Yun, left. Moreover, Trump is likely surrounded by people, as was George W. Bush, who believe the United States should be doing everything it can to see the North Korean government fall, and therefore see negotiations and any US agreement with Kim as undermining that goal. Unless Trump rejects that view, it will be essentially impossible for the administration to develop a workable plan for the summit.
Similarly, even if the summit results in an agreement in principle for North Korea to denuclearize, clarifying what that means to both sides and what steps are necessary and acceptable to reach that point, will be a long and difficult process, and will require detailed negotiations no matter what is decided in principle at high levels. Since the North talks about “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” it is difficult to know exactly what it believes necessary to accompany any reductions in its own arsenal.
US frustrations at those negotiations, or a failure to make progress at the summit itself, could lead to a stronger call in the US for military actions, with people arguing that the diplomatic track has now been tried and failed.
High-level diplomacy is the process of trying to solve the hardest problems. It requires patience, flexibility, innovation, and some amount of holding one’s nose. We have yet to see if the administration is up to this task. That job is complicated by the fact that the US public has been told for many years that you can’t negotiate with North Korea—despite the fact that the US negotiating team in the late 2000 believed they were close to agreements to solve both the nuclear and missile problems. Those negotiations ended when the Bush administration took office in early 2001 and ended the process. Whether North Korea is as serious about negotiations now as they were then remains to be seen.
So, I am happy to see an easing of tensions between the US and North Korea, and am hoping that the Trump administration has understood the limitations of military action and has done more thinking about a diplomatic initiative than it has shown publicly. But I am not particularly optimistic, and remain concerned about the potential pitfalls of this process.