President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offers a rare opportunity for a diplomatic solution to a nuclear crisis that has threatened to erupt into war. But it also carries a lot of risk.
Trump acknowledged the planned meeting could fizzle but said he believes North Korea is ready to make peace.
“I think it’s time,” he said Saturday during a campaign rally for Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania.
“Who knows what’s going to happen,” he said of the summit. “I may leave fast or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world.”
Thursday’s announcement that Trump had accepted Kim’s invitation to meet was a stunning reversal of longstanding U.S. policy that no talks would be held until the North made concrete efforts toward denuclearization. It would be the first time a sitting U.S. president has met with a North Korean leader.
The White House pushed back against criticism that it was agreeing to a meeting without getting anything in return. Trump insisted that economic sanctions will remain on the table until an agreement was reached and noted the North Koreans had committed to denuclearization and promised to suspend weapons tests while talks are held.
Kim Jong Un also accepted the fact that Washington and Seoul would begin annual war games after the March 8-18 Paralympics despite North Korea’s fierce opposition to the joint military exercises.
But critics noted that the summit itself gives the North Koreans an initial victory because one of their most cherished goals has been a seat at the table with a U.S. president.
The North Koreans have used past negotiations to stall for time and gain concessions and humanitarian assistance from the West only to eventually renege on promises and make advances in their effort to develop a nuclear weapon that could target the U.S. mainland.
Here’s a look at key issues as Washington prepares for what would be a historic and unprecedented meeting. No time or place has been set, but the South Korean officials who delivered Kim’s invitation to Trump said it would be by May.
All sides are eager to ease tensions that have spiked with the constant drumbeat of North Korean missile tests and a war of words between the North and Trump. The U.S. president has traded threats and personal insults with Kim Jong Un. The breakthroughs began with North Korea’s agreement to join the Winter Olympics, which were held in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang. That led to the first talks between the two Koreas in more than two years.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, eager to prevent another conflict on the divided peninsula, has worked tirelessly to broaden the sports diplomacy to include denuclearization talks with the United States. South Korean envoys who traveled to Pyongyang last week met with the North Korean leader and announced plans for an inter-Korean summit in late April. They then traveled to Washington and briefed Trump on their meetings. That was when the president accepted Kim’s invitation to meet and directed the South Koreans to announce it Friday at the White House. North Korea watchers have long predicted that last year’s election of a left-leaning government in Seoul would lead to new peace initiatives.
The U.S. has not held formal talks with North Korea for more than a decade. The North, meanwhile, has stockpiled an arsenal of nuclear weapons and made strong progress in developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver them. It test-fired some two dozen missiles last year, including three ICBMs, although experts are divided over how much time it needs to perfect the capability.
The North also conducted its sixth and most powerful underground nuclear test last year. During his New Year’s address, Kim declared the country had completed its nuclear force and said “a nuclear button is always on my desk.” That prompted Trump to boast his nuclear button “is much bigger and more powerful.” Looking past the rhetoric, observers suggest that Kim may feel he finally has sufficient leverage to engage in talks.
In announcing the summit, the South Koreans gave credit to Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of increased economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. While past administrations also relied on sanctions, the Trump administration has tightened the noose by moving to close loopholes blocking efforts to cut off North Korea’s oil imports and exports of coal and other items that earn much-needed foreign currency. The president also has increased pressure on the Chinese to comply with the measures.
“North Korea is under more stress and more pressure on a continuous basis than ever before, so time is not on their side,” Daniel Davis, a military expert with the conservative U.S. think tank Defense Priorities, said in a telephone interview.
“There is an opportunity here that hasn’t existed before,” said Davis, a retired lieutenant colonel who served as a U.S. adviser to the South Korean army in the late ‘90s.
He also noted that Trump’s fiery rhetoric with threats to unleash “fire and fury” and to “totally destroy North Korea” if necessary also may have pushed North Korea and China to act.
“He’s a little more unpredictable and they may think he may actually use the military option,” Davis said.
The two sides have expressed intractable positions in recent months, with Trump insisting that North Korea must abandon its nuclear ambitions and Pyongyang insisting its weapons programs aren’t up for negotiation.
“The unanswered question going forward is what the United States is willing to put on the table for a negotiation,” Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in the New York Times. “In years dealing with North Korea, I have learned that the regime never gives anything away for free.”
He said the U.S. could offer incremental energy and economic assistance and the lifting of sanctions for a freeze and eventual dismantlement of the nuclear and missile program. Cha said a second path would be to up the stakes to include the normalization of diplomatic relations and possibly the conclusion of a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War in return for denuclearization.
But Cha and others cautioned that the Trump administration must approach the summit with clear, verifiable objectives or risk failure at a high-level that could take other diplomatic options off the table.
“If the meeting actually happens, certainly there is the potential for surprising results … but there’s a lot that could go wrong,” said Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“If Trump goes and doesn’t come away with something then there’s a concern about whether that could legitimize North Korea as a nuclear state,” she said. “One of the tangible outcomes could be a commitment to stop some of the material production that could be monitored and verified.”
That could be complicated by the fact that the United States is suffering from a dearth of diplomatic expertise following the recent resignation of the chief U.S. envoy on North Korea Joseph Yun. Trump has yet to name an ambassador to South Korea, a post that has been vacant since he took office. The acting ambassador, Marc Knapper, is widely seen as a capable substitute but lacks the authoritative title that could be important to the North Koreans.
The decision to hold a summit as a starting point also turns traditional negotiating norms on their head. The U.S. president is usually brought in as a closer after painstaking, lower-level talks to reach hard-won agreements.
The North’s view
North Korea has not formally commented on the latest developments.
“North Korea seems to need time to organize its position … and seems to be taking a cautious and prudent approach,” Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said Monday.
Kim’s invitation and promises were delivered by South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong during his meeting with Trump. That leaves open many questions and potentially gives room for the North to maneuver. Analysts noted, for example, that the two sides define denuclearization in different ways.
Duyeon Kim, a senior visiting fellow with the Seoul-based Korean Peninsula Future Forum, says North Koreans want arms control talks that would include the U.S. giving up its nuclear deterrent.
“For Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo, on the other hand, ‘denuclearization’ simply means a nuclear weapons-free North Korea,” she wrote in a column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
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