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The initial announcements of the impending summit between the US and North Korean leaders were made not by US officials, nor by North Korean representatives, nor – heaven forfend that these strange times would see something so conventional – a joint statement from both parties, but instead by a visiting delegation of South Koreans led by National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong on the White House lawn. Not the stuff of which well-planned initiatives are made, though one person who has clearly been planning hard for such an eventuality is South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He has in recent months effectively exploited the public diplomacy opportunity afforded by the PyeongChang Winter Olympics to effectively change the peninsular narrative from war-war to jaw-jaw.
But what of the White House response to the South Korean announcement? White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump will ‘accept the invitation to meet [with] Kim Jong-un at a place and time to be determined. We look forward to the denuclearization of [North Korea]. In the meantime all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.’ And President Trump subsequently tweeted that ‘denuclearization … not just a freeze’ was still on the menu, along with a cessation of missile tests, and that ‘sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!’.
In a continuation of the unusual circumstances surrounding this development, both responses effectively walked the fine line between contradicting prior US declaratory policy on the conditions for direct talks and pulling the rug from under its most important partner on this issue. The key phrase here is ‘at a place and time to be determined’, which very much leaves the door open to anything from soft-pedalling, to an extended pre-negotiation process, to cancelling the whole thing – after suitable co-ordination with Seoul – under any convenient pretext that comes to hand if the situation warrants it. With luck, this newfound deftness will become the norm rather than the exception.
The worst-case scenario for this nascent process would be for Trump to rush into an early meeting with Kim, on Kim’s territory in Pyongyang. That would make for a repeat of his worrying antics at the G20 meeting in Hamburg last July, where, following a convivial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he rolled over and accepted at face value the proffered denials of interference in the US presidential election. His April 2017 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the US president’s Mar-a-Lago property showed that he is vulnerable to diplomatic ‘mission creep’ on his own territory too, with talk turning from trade war before the summit to trade co-operation after it. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played up to Trump’s interests extremely adeptly during their November 2017 meeting in Tokyo, using golf, steaks and even Trump’s own campaign language to ensure a strong bond with the leader of Japan’s most important ally.
Perhaps Putin, Xi and Abe all studied The Art of the Deal so closely that the apprentices have become the masters – or perhaps Trump is simply not particularly good at seeing through the flattery and flummery of summit politics. Worse, the scenario we have outlined here, as non-proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis pointed out is ‘quite literally the end of a North Korean movie’, The Country I Saw in which North Korea’s weapons programmes force a presidential visit to Pyongyang, and would clearly be a massive propaganda coup for the regime, regardless of the outcome.
So if, for whatever reason, Trump ends up going to Pyongyang by the end of May, the brief should be not to smile, not to nod, and agree to nothing that hasn’t been pre-agreed. And frankly that should be the brief wherever and whenever this happens. Trump and Kim in Pyongyang would not be Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik, nor would they be Nixon and Mao in China. There has not yet been the level of discussion between the US and North Korea that preceded either of those landmark summit meetings – and we know this because the US has been consistently telling us, since the beginning of the ’maximum pressure’ campaign, that it is willing to talk to the North Koreans, but they have not shown any willingness to do so. So time for preparation is short.
Instead this should be treated as the start of a process. A summit meeting is not an unreasonable carrot to dangle for a North Korean regime that clearly values the legitimisation it would bring. But it needs to be earned. A freeze on missile testing is simply not enough: it is eminently reversible, while the US concession of a summit meeting is entirely bankable. The same is true of the vague commitment not to respond to the US-South Korea joint exercises in April this year; a response comprising further missile and nuclear tests would at this point most likely hurt Kim diplomatically more than it would help him technically.
The US should build trust and confidence with its South Korean ally by engaging in a diplomatic process designed to lay the groundwork for a future summit – yes, at a place and time to be determined, but ideally not Pyongyang and maybe not even this year. Washington should simultaneously look to build consensus, first privately and then jointly in public, with Seoul over the outcomes that summit should achieve. North Korea’s investment in the process could be tested by applying a missile and nuclear test freeze over that longer less-defined period. That way, even if the summit proposal never comes to fruition, there will have been a positive outcome to this episode, and some of the damage that has been wrought to the alliance over the past year will have been healed.
Banner Image: Graffiti of US President Trump and the North Korean Leader Kim Jon-un in Vienna, Austria. Courtesy of Bwag/Wikimedia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.