Chung Eui-yong, Head of the National Security Office under the president of South Korea, said, while speaking to reporters in Washington, that president Trump had expressed his agreement to hold a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un until May. According to Valdai Club expert Gleb Ivashentsov, there are many obstacles for the meeting, and we have to wait for what the DPRK will say and how the US will behave before and in course of the negotiations.
The significance of reports on a possible meeting between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should not be overestimated. The US president said that the DPRK leader is ready to discuss denuclearization of the Korean peninsula with him. But Kim Jong-un himself did not publicly state anything on the issue. The relevant information comes only from the South Korean side. But here, there is nothing new: over the past two decades, Pyongyang has repeatedly declared its wish to enter direct talks with the US.
So far, there is no exact date for the projected meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, the White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders has already said that no meeting will take place until the DPRK takes certain actions on denuclearization the US expects from it. However, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to pay for a handshake with Trump with renouncing his nuclear programme, which serves as a security shield for North Korea. Its leadership remembers how the West thanked Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for his voluntary renunciation of the nuclear program, and does not want to repeat his fate.
Suspension of the US-South Koran military exercises is not the most important thing North Korea wants from America. Pyongyang undoubtedly seeks to launch political dialogue with Washington aimed at possible diplomatic recognition, lifting of certain sanctions and provision of economic assistance.
The issue of the US troops’ presence in South Korea, deployed after the US-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty (1953), may also be touched upon. For Washington, its military presence is one of the components of the global “American leadership”. The Korean peninsula is the only continental element of the US military presence in East Asia. In addition, South Korea significantly reinforces American military power in the Pacific region, doing so much more than Japan, still bound by the ninth article of its Constitution. So the warming of US-North Korean relations is not a simple matter for the American political and military establishment.
If the meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un occurs, it is hard to count on something more than a joint photo of the two leaders. Experts point out that neither Trump nor Kim Jong-un have any experience in complex international negotiations with a difficult foreign partner. And solution of the North Korean nuclear program requires a scrupulous and detailed discussion on security guarantees – primarily for the DPRK and the Republic of Korea, and then for Russia, China, Japan and all other countries in the region. Such guarantees mush be durable and convincing enough so that no one has any suspicions about them.
Guarantees are also required from other participants in the six-party talks of the United Nations Security Council. After all, Pyongyang would have to commit a number of irreversible measures with regard to, for example, providing access to confidential information, not to mention the physical dismantling of its entire nuclear and missile infrastructure. While all the steps expected from the US are easily reversible: military exercises could be resumed, sanctions restored, the peace treaty annulled, diplomatic recognition revoked and so on.
It is also important to what extent the US is able to fulfil its obligations under the treaties which it signs. For example, Washington voluntarily withdrew from the ABM Treaty and from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. President Trump is now talking about cancellation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. All of this, especially the future of the Iran deal, is directly related to the DPRK. The Iran deal envisages that it must cancel its nuclear program in exchange for the US lifting the sanctions. But if the Iran deal becomes a bargaining chip in some geopolitical considerations, is it possible to persuade the DPRK to agree to a similar option which could be withdrawn at any time? Having created a long-range nuclear missile, the North Korean leader seems to have decided that his main strategic goal, which is to ensure North Korea’s security from the US, has been achieved, and now the nuclear race could be suspended. However, whether this situation will be durable depends on how Washington will behave.