US President Donald Trump meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un? The notion appeared illusory over the past months as tensions have been building between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea’s repeated provocations and advancement of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But things have dramatically shifted in recent weeks, starting with a series of inter-Korea talks and now the looming possibility of a US-North Korea summit. Indeed, earlier this week, top South Korean envoys dropped the news at a quickly arranged press conference at the White House, following their meeting with Trump. South Korea’s National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong revealed that Trump had agreed to meet Kim Jong-un by the end of May in order to achieve “permanent denuclearisation”.
What are the prospects for the US-North Korea summit? On the positive side, there is a deep need for diplomacy and engagement with the North. This is especially true considering the dangerous uptick in tensions on the peninsula, coupled with anxiety among North Korea’s neighbours. The Trump administration has responded with its “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy that has tightened the screws on Pyongyang through a far tighter sanctions regime, enhanced deterrence with allies such as Japan and South Korea, and also more vociferously discussed the potential for the use of military force against North Korea. The risks and costs associated with the military option have been discussed at length and it remains an untenable choice.
In this light, it is enticing to see the opening of a diplomatic path as a breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, there remains little chance that Kim is willing to barter away his one main insurance card – the nuclear programme – for regime survival. Indeed, Kim has staked his regime legitimacy on his push to develop nuclear weapons, alongside economic development, in his byungjin line. This sets up the meeting later this year with divergent expectations from the two sides. Washington expects tangible progress and commitment towards denuclearisation. Pyongyang, meanwhile, is looking for security assurances, diplomatic recognition and acceptance from the Trump administration of its status as a nuclear weapons state. If Trump leaves the summit with Kim, without a firm path towards the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, the gamble will be a failure.
Direct bilateral negotiations with the US has always been the primary goal for Pyongyang which wants to talk to Washington on an even platform, nuclear weapons state to nuclear weapons state.
Therefore, it is important to slow down before making any large pronouncements that this is a breakthrough or the beginning stage to denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula. The fact remains that, to date, there has been no effective change to the main irritant between the North and the United States – the nuclear and ballistic missile programme. Moreover, despite the message relayed from South Korea that the Kim regime is apparently willing to discuss denuclearisation with the US, to date, there have been no concrete measures or even signs that North Korea is willing to negotiate in good faith or put their nuclear weapons programme on the table for discussion. It is also important to remember that we have heard nothing officially from North Korea on the details of what it is willing to concede. Couple this with the fact that North Korea has a long track-record of breaking its promises with regard to denuclearisation.
This sets up a massive risk for the Trump administration in agreeing to a summit with the North. To be clear, direct bilateral negotiations with the US have always been the primary goal for Pyongyang which wants to talk to Washington on an even platform, nuclear-weapons state to nuclear-weapons state. It is for this reason, and the prudent policy of not accepting North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, that Washington has consistently avoided rewarding Pyongyang with a concession such as high-level summit diplomacy. No sitting US president has ever met the Kim regime, despite visits from former Presidents Carter and Clinton after they left the White House. Therefore, if the upcoming Trump-Kim summit does indeed happen (which appears probable, but is not guaranteed) it will be an historic change in US approach.
In the weeks leading up to this summit, the US must take a number of critical steps to manage the considerable risks of the Kim-Trump summit. First, Washington needs to have clear, sustained, and coherent coordination with its main allies in the region – Japan and South Korea. The announcement of Trump’s willingness to meet Kim appears to have blindsided Tokyo in particular, which had been lockstep with the Trump administration on its “maximum pressure” approach and has dismissed the notion of “talks for talk’s sake”. This policy shift will require crucial alliance management with Tokyo, and also Seoul, to ensure a united approach to North Korea.
The second critical area will be for the Trump administration to understand that North Korea will expect concessions for its willingness to float denuclearisation as a possibility. What will these concessions look like? Traditionally the North has asked for a suite of demands associated with US “hostile policy”, ranging from establishing diplomatic relations, sanctions relief, ending bilateral military exercises, to the signing of a peace treaty. The concern remains that Pyongyang will use this summit to secure concessions that weaken deterrence and drive a wedge between the US and its allies, without living up to its promises.
Finally, Washington also must be careful not to be tempted into a de-facto acceptance of the status-quo or the “double freeze” option – which could be construed as the US putting its true redline on the North’s continued development of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities. This move would have significant consequences to its alliance relationships in the region, which have been under threat for some time now by Pyongyang’s medium-range missiles.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.