Why the Projected Kim-Trump Summit Is Not Yet a Breakthrough

In the light of rumors about the US-North Korean summit, many experts decided that it’s time to uncork champagne. However, as this author said in an interview, it’s too early not only to open champagne, but to go to the refrigerator to take the bottle, and there are several reasons for this.

First, one can draw attention to the fact that the South Korean representative who announced in Washington that Kim Jong-un was ready for denuclearization presented it as wishful thinking. The fact is that (and this can be found in the documents of the briefing of the same person in Seoul), Kim Jong-un, albeit in a veiled form, expressed the idea which North Korea has always defended: “We are not against denuclearization in general and are ready to disarm, IF the military threat against our country disappears. When the geopolitical situation surrounding the Korean peninsula changes radically, we will be ready to disarm.” The problem is that the change of the situation, when the United States completely leaves the desire to erase the DPRK from the world map is not even science fiction, but fantasy.

However, this important “IF” disappeared somewhere during the flight of South Korea’s national security director Chung Eui-yong from Seoul to Washington. It is possible that president Moon’s envoy was playing his own Seoul games. On the one hand, the South Korean president should not and cannot break away from Washington, while, on the other, his political views force him to demonstrate inter-Korean rapprochement. Moon is trying to bluff his way, bringing Seoul and Washington together, and one can see that the South Korean establishment echoes the American one when trying to explain Kim’s actions: “No gestures of goodwill. Thanks to the wise policy of sanctions, North Korea has been finally pressed, and Kim has been driven into a corner.” Those who are unsatisfied not only with the nuclear status, but with the very existence of the DPRK, can conclude that, once the enemy gave the slack, it is necessary to strengthen the grip, continuing the “maximum pressure.”

Actually, it is already clear that the sanctions will not disappear, the summit notwithstanding. Although the State Department said that Donald Trump “decided to hold the summit on his own” (this means without asking anyone), the next day the White House spokesman and a number of other officials corrected the statement almost in the same way as it happened after Tillerson’s phrase about the possibility of dialogue with North Korea without preconditions: North Korea should deserve the right for a summit and must take tangible and sincere steps in the field of denuclearization to demonstrate that Pyongyang does not try to deceive Washington. Honestly speaking, this is the standard American response to earlier North Korean proposals: at first you must prove your sincerity and disarm (preferably by committing irreversible actions), and then we’ll think about whether to talk to you or not.

Let’s add to this that the American bureaucratic machine at the moment works like a clock that stands still. There is no competent secretary of state, because the newly appointed former CIA head needs time to get into the swing of the work. Congress has not approved Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East. The US ambassador to South Korea is also unavailable. And even the Special Representative for North Korea Policy has not been appointed, instead of retired Joseph Yun. Who in this situation will be seriously involved to develop a strategy for the summit?

Meanwhile, the summit should not be “empty.” A significant part of the American establishment will consider the very fact of the talks between the US president and the head of the demonized rogue state as a concession to the Forces of Evil and will chew Trump up if he does not come back with total capitulation or something he can present as an outstanding diplomatic victory equal to the Cuban missile crisis resolution.

Trump, with his business model, perceives dialogue and compromise as “you agree to my terms and want to discuss the details.” Kim, who is under pressure by the status of a sacred leader, is not much different from Trump. That is why an important question arises: what can each of them do in order to take a step back and at the same time save face?

Strangely enough, this is easier for the Northerners. They can muffle the sound of their propaganda and return to the times of visits to North Korea by Jimmy Carter or Madeleine Albright, when America was called “America,” and not “American imperialism.” They have the opportunity to make a beautiful gesture by announcing a unilateral moratorium on nuclear missile tests. Considering that Kim has already announced the completion of his strategic nuclear forces program, this means that technically the tests can no longer be necessary, and political demonstrations can be out of time. All of this goes absolutely for nothing and looks good.

In exchange for more concessions, one might think, as suggested by a number of Russian experts, about how to separate the nuclear and the missile programmes. If the status of the DPRK as a nuclear power is inscribed in the constitution, the same is not said about ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, the red line for Trump is Pyongyang’s ability to attack with nuclear weapons at least Los Angeles, not Seoul or Tokyo.

But what can Kim demand in return? According to one South Korean newspaper, the Northerners wanted to implement what actually should have happened in the nineties: the beginning of normal diplomatic contacts between the two countries. The minimum program is the establishment of a hotline or official emergency communication channels. The optimal program is establishment of diplomatic relations and/or a peace treaty or other agreement that should somehow close the problem of the Korean War. The DPRK withdrew from the Ceasefire Agreement in 2016, but the United States technically violated it in 1958, when, ignoring the ban on the deployment of new types of weapons, it placed tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. The question is how Washington will bear such a recognition.

A lot of interesting events should be expected before May: joint US-ROK exercises, the scope and program of which may demonstrate a certain sign of America’s willingness to make concessions; the inter-Korean summit, which, in general, has the same problems as the need for concrete results, but its probability is still higher; the inevitable tightening of the sanctions regime, which looks ridiculous because so far there is no evidence of Pyongyang’s involvement in the poisoning of Kim Jong-nam.

Therefore, this author refers with skepticism to talks about a grandiose breakthrough. Yes, there is a chance that Trump and Kim will talk, but to talk does not mean to agree and whether the “Olympic warming” grows into something more is a very serious issue.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.