President Donald Trump’s upcoming meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un may appear to be a breakthrough between two leaders who openly talked about nuclear war in 2017.
However, national security experts caution against expecting too much from a historic meeting that still has no publicly confirmed date and may have a less defined agenda than similar such meetings between heads of state. The meeting likely will be in late May or early June, based on what Trump has said.
Here are four key issues, according to experts, as the Trump-Kim meeting approaches.
1. What’s Different This Time?
This won’t be the first negotiation between the two countries, but it will be the first bilateral meeting between the president of the United States and a North Korean leader.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s secret Easter visit to Pyongyang to meet with Kim and other North Korean officials was a surprise, but doubts remain on whether the upcoming Trump-Kim meeting will achieve a breakthrough, said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Asian studies at The Heritage Foundation.
“Trump has abandoned the usual U.S. diplomatic playbook calling for a ‘bottom up’ approach in which diplomats would first attain a carefully crafted agreement with North Korea prior to deploying the president for final signature,” Klingner told The Daily Signal in an email.
“Instead, Trump has gone for a ‘top down’ approach in which he is the chief negotiator. Trump seems unworried by the many diplomatic vacancies in his administration and therefore it is immaterial if Pompeo is confirmed prior to the summit.”
Trump nominated Pompeo to be secretary of state amid preparations for Trump’s meeting with Kim, but the nomination could be stalled in the Senate.
To prevent a repeat of previous failed diplomatic attempts at denuclearization, the U.S. should insist on detailed agreement text that clearly delineates all sides’ requirements. Previous efforts relied on vague text to allow achieving an agreement but allowing differing interpretations of responsibilities. The U.S. should also insist on rigorous verification requirements such as those achieved during arms control treaties with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.
2. What’s the Deal?
Trump expressed enthusiasm Wednesday during a press conference at his Mar-a-Lago estate about his meeting with the North Korean dictator, tentatively set for May.
“I hope to have a very successful meeting,” Trump said. “If I think that it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go. If the meeting, when I’m there, is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting, and we’ll continue what we’re doing or whatever it is that we’ll continue. But something will happen. So I like always remaining flexible, and we’ll remain flexible here.”
But the meeting could be risky given the rapidness with which it came together, warned Howard Stoffer, a former State Department foreign service agent and counterterrorism official with the United Nations.
“When Nixon went to China, everyone knew what to expect and it was well planned,” Stoffer, now a professor of national security at the University of New Haven, told The Daily Signal. “If this meeting fails, there is no place else to go. When I would engage in a meeting with another diplomat, if it failed we could go a level higher.”
Stoffer said he is skeptical North Korea would give up its nuclear arsenal, but that the meeting between the leaders would have to produce a broad framework up front and allow details to be hammered out later.
This would mean a peace treaty—perhaps initially between North Korea and South Korea—with the United States signing on once it could verify denuclearization; a reduction in sanctions on North Korea; a mechanism for verification; and a calendar for those goals, Stoffer said.
At this point, it doesn’t seem clear what the deal would be, said Jamil Jaffer, founder and director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University, and a former counsel to both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Intelligence Committee.
“The administration’s priority—correctly, in my view—is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and the North Korean regime’s incentive is to maintain its negotiating leverage and malign influence in the region by keeping its illegal nuclear weapons capability,” Jaffer told The Daily Signal.
In a potentially sweeping development, Kim will not demand the U.S. remove its troops from South Korea as a condition for rolling back his nuclear program, according to South Korean President Moon Jae-In.
The meeting itself sends a reassuring message after much hand-wringing in 2017 and may not pose immense risk, said James Carafano, vice president for foreign policy and national security for The Heritage Foundation.
“It’s highly unlikely they would give up the nuclear program,” Carafano told The Daily Signal, referring to North Korea. “I doubt this will be fruitful. But it is not going to be disastrous.”
“This meeting demonstrates that things are not out of control,” Carafano said. “We are not heading toward World War III. The fact that the Senate feels they can play politics with the secretary of state nomination is evidence that we are not on an inevitable path to war.”
Each country has its core demands for the meeting, said Victor Cha, a government professor at Georgetown University.
“For the United States, the core position is complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” Cha, also a senior adviser and Korea chairman for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on April 11.
“For North Korea, the core position is that the United States must accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state,” he said in written testimony. “Without a change in the North’s core position, this deadlock will impede the success of any negotiation.”
The Trump administration must know the answers to key strategic questions before the president meets with Kim, Cha said. These include, “What is the price we are willing to pay for denuclearization?” “What must North Korea demonstrate in an agreement before we begin to lift sanctions?” “What is the risk we are willing to accept if we can’t succeed in the negotiation?” and “What is the cost we will accept of a military solution?”
3. What Prompted North Korea to Negotiate at Last?
Tough talk played some role in prompting the negotiation, George Mason University’s Jaffer said.
“Because of the administration’s tough North Korea policy, the Kim regime might rightly view the United States as actually having a credible threat of the use of military force—unlike prior administrations on both sides of the aisle—and that may force them to make a more realistic deal that’s in America’s national security interests,” said Jaffer, who also served in the White House and Justice Department.
The maximum pressure campaign by the U.S. has been effective, Cha told the House panel. Sanctions have increased the price of gas, rice, and other commodities in North Korea, reduced oil imports by one-third, and banned more than 90 percent of North Korea’s exports to United Nations countries, he said.
China doesn’t believe a collapse of the communist North Korean regime is in China’s best interest, Cha said. While the world’s second-largest economy could do more, it has made significant steps in working with the United States.
“If I had said to you last year that China would cut off coal, seafood, textiles, iron, and some oil with North Korea, you would have laughed in my face. Yet they are doing so, contrary to many predictions,” Cha said.
Trump seems to be taking a traditional tough negotiating stance, Carafano said.
“This perfectly fits into the larger strategy,” Carafano said. “The pundits that are criticizing the meeting are the same pundits who said Trump was going to start World War III. This continues maximum pressure and offers an off-ramp for North Korea.”
4. What Are the Lessons of History?
The lessons stretch a long way.
The United States has made mistakes in Korea going back to as early as 1905 when it agreed to Japanese dominance of the country, Cha told the House panel.
In 1950, the U.S. drew a defense perimeter that excluded Korea and Taiwan. This played a role in North Korea’s decision, with Soviet and Chinese support, to invade the South that year, Cha said, which led to the Korean War.
More recently, the North Korean regime did not comply with eight previous agreements pertaining to nuclear weapons.
“There are plenty of reasons to be concerned by this so-called breakthrough,” Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, a national security think tank, told The Daily Signal, adding:
I find it difficult to believe that after three generations of sociopathic megalomaniacs, this regime would give up its nuclear arsenal for any amount of concessions. The U.S. could pull out of South Korea, and give still more money and food, and North Korea would still cheat.
The most significant past agreement viewed as a breakthrough at the time came in 1994. That’s when North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium weapons program in exchange for light-water nuclear reactors, heavy fuel, and eventual normalized relations with the United States.
However, the North Koreans continued uranium enrichment to produce the raw materials for nuclear weapons. The U.S. and North Korea ended the agreed framework in 2002.
“Any deal must be highly verifiable,” Jaffer said. “North Korea has already lied and cheated repeatedly in past deals with the United States, and there is no desire on the part of this administration to repeat the mistakes of the Iran deal. Unlike in the prior administration [with Iran], there is no huge pressure on him to do a deal, so the president has the ability to work more aggressively towards the outcome he wants.”
Under the Obama administration-led multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran reached in 2015, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the U.S. and other nations lifted sanctions but the regime is able to advance its nuclear ambitions within a decade, Jaffer said.
“Trump has strongly criticized all previous agreements with North Korea as well as the JCPOA,” Heritage’s Klingner said. “As such, he has set himself a high bar for defining success of any accord that he reaches with Kim Jong Un.”
“A Trump agreement would have to be better than the eight previous North Korean agreements [and] the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as the 10 U.N. resolutions on North Korea.”
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