Trump-North Korea meeting a gamble as intentions unclear
No US president has held a face-to-face meeting with the North Korean leadership
US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Photograph: AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS
The news that Donald Trump has agreed to meet his long-time foe Kim Jong-un represents one of the most surprising, and potentially significant, turns of the Trump presidency. A few months ago the US president dismissed the possibility of talks with North Korea as a “waste of time”, chastising his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, on Twitter for considering dialogue. “Save your energy Rex,” he said.
Now Trump plans to meet the North Korean leader, possibly before May, in a breakthrough announced by South Korean national security advisor Chung Eui-yong and confirmed by the White House.
Even aside from the bizarre sight of a South Korean delegation announcing to the world a meeting between the United States and North Korea on White House grounds, the decision is puzzling. Is this a diplomatic coup, or an impulse reaction by the president? Whatever the outcome, it is undoubtedly a gamble.
No US president has held a face-to-face meeting with the North Korean leadership. Bill Clinton came closest, considering a visit to Pyongyang in the final months of his presidency, before deciding against it.
James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Programme at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, believes it is a high-risk strategy.
“Summits normally come at the end of a diplomatic process when an agreement is almost ready,and perhaps just a few key details are left to be decided. Even a well-staffed State Department would need months – if not years – to prepare for a summit with North Korea,” he says.
‘Long way from negotiations’
Certainly, Trump’s move appeared to have taken the State Department by surprise. Just hours before the announcement, Tillerson, travelling in Africa, said that America was “a long way from negotiations” with North Korea.
The United States’s diplomatic resources when it comes to North Korea are already under strain, reflecting a cutback in personnel and expenditure at the State Department.
Many fear that the lack of diplomatic heavyweights, and the sheer complexity of putting a strategy in place before a summit, may see the administration’s military men take an outsized role in driving the process.
Others worry about Pyongyang’s motives, arguing that a meeting will help legitimise the North Korean regime, as Kim styles himself as an international dealmaker who can take a seat across the table with the leader of the free world. The North Korean dictator, who came to power in 2011, has never met a world leader.
There are also legitimate concerns about North Korea’s reliability as a negotiating partner. Past promises to denuclearise have come to nothing. Speaking in October 1994, Bill Clinton hailed an agreement with Kim’s father as the “first step on the road to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula”. It would prove to be wishful thinking.
But the White House has defended the move, casting Trump as a bold dealmaker who has the courage to take action where others have dithered.
“President Trump was elected in part because he is willing to take approaches very different from past approaches and past presidents,” a senior White House official said, adding that Trump has “made his reputation on making deals”.
“Going back to 1992, the United States has engaged in direct talks at low levels with the North Koreans – I think that history speaks for itself,” the official said. Strategic engagement, the argument goes, has not worked so far.
As the world reacts to the development with cautious optimism, focus in the coming weeks will be on the practicalities of the meeting. Trump previously said North Korea was the “last place on Earth I want to go”, and a meeting in the demilitarised zone between South and North Korea is unlikely. One possibility is that the president may travel to South Korea for the meeting.
South Korean president Moon Jae-in has earned praised for his role in advancing dialogue between the two neighbours in recent months, culminating in this week’s unprecedented meetings in Pyongyang which led to the offer of the US meeting.
Observers will also be watching for any conditions the Americans set for the meeting. Will the United States accept nothing less than a complete cessation of nuclear activity? What about the three American citizens who remain in captivity in North Korea?
Given his pledge to reopen the Iran nuclear deal, the president will be under pressure not to sign up to a deal that fails to include at least the same concessions extracted from Tehran. By accepting North Korea’s offer to talk, Trump is setting himself up for possible failure, if Pyongyang fails to deliver.
Donald Trump may see himself as the great deal maker, but this time it is the national security of the world, not his business, that is at stake.