Trump administration serious about North Korea summit

Analysis: Speed of the preparations shows US administration means business

US president Donald Trump has said he will "respectfully leave" his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un if he feels "it is not going to be fruitful." Video: The White House

 

The speed at which preparations for a possible meeting between Donald Trump and his long-time adversary Kim Jong-un have unfolded has taken seasoned foreign policy watchers by surprise.

The extraordinary news that CIA director Mike Pompeo travelled to the North Korean capital in recent weeks to meet Kim indicates that the Trump administration is serious about the summit – even if the US president moved to temper expectations by warning that he would walk out of the talks if the meeting was not fruitful.

Trump’s new-found enthusiasm for meeting a leader he once mocked as “little Rocket Man” is bewildering, with some viewing the move as the latest attempt by the president to divert the news agenda away from the swirl of political controversies engulfing him domestically.

Diplomatic gamble

Whatever the motivation, it’s a diplomatic gamble.

Already some commentators have questioned why Pompeo, who was accompanied by officials from the CIA and not the state department during his visit to Pyongyang, returned to the United States with no apparent concessions.

In particular, the status of the three American citizens who are currently detained in North Korea is striking a chord with the American public, particularly given the tragic events surrounding US student Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after his release from North Korea last year.

South Korean and US soldiers at the border village of Panmunjom between South and North Korea in the demilitarised zone. Photograph: Getty Images
South Korean and US soldiers at the border village of Panmunjom between South and North Korea in the demilitarised zone. Photograph: Getty Images

Trump was asked about the matter during his final press conference with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe this week. He provided few details, other than stating the US was fighting diligently for their release.

Questions also remain about North Korea’s motivations. Vague promises of denuclearising have been issued before by the rogue state, and many believe that North Korea’s strategy is to buy time to advance its nuclear capabilities, advocate for the removal of US troops from the Korean peninsula and ease international sanctions – all the while basking in the prestige of a meeting with the US leader.

Five possible locations

Other more practical issues present potential obstacles to the meeting – namely, location.

Trump has said that five possible locations are under consideration. While the Peace House in Panmunjom, a border village in the demilitarised zone on the Korean Peninsula, is one possibility, the optics of the US president travelling there may not be embraced by the United States.

European countries such as Sweden and Switzerland have also offered to host the talks and remain a strong possibility – but the distance from North Korea presents its own challenges. It is unclear if North Korea’s fleet of older planes have the capability to fly the distance, and given Kim’s image consciousness, he is unlikely to accept an offer of a free flight by another country.

As the world awaits the first possible meeting between the leaders of the two countries, logistical challenges may prove as difficult to overcome as political differences in the coming weeks.

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