By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas
In agreeing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, US President Donald Trump took yes for an answer. The US had been demanding that denuclearisation must be the goal of any talks. Surprisingly, Kim said this would be on the table. In Trump’s inimitable style, accepting Kim’s offer of a summit was a one-man decision, made seemingly on the spur of the moment without the benefit of input from a depleted State Department. He reversed the normal practice of working-level talks to set the stage and contours before the heads of state meet.
A great deal could go wrong with such an approach. Victor Cha, a leading North Korean scholar who would have been on the State Department team had he not been pulled as ambassador-nominee to Seoul, warns that a failed summit could push the Peninsula to the brink of war. Another insulting tweet, an interdiction of a contraband-laden ship or a North Korean provocation could end the peace music at any time. Yet for now, Trump is moving the fraught Korean situation in the direction of peace and, dare one say, a potential solution to the North Korean threat. A petulant rebuff of Kim’s offer would have closed off this opportunity.
What does Kim mean by ‘denuclearisation’?
North Korea always insists on the phrase ‘denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’. This is a face-saving way of not accepting the sole onus of disarmament, even though the only nuclear weapons on the Peninsula are in the northern half. Pessimists note that North Korea often expands the definition to include US nuclear-armed submarines that often patrol in the waters off the Peninsula and the nuclear umbrella that the US extends as part of its security alliance with the Republic of Korea. The US will certainly not forego its extended deterrence guarantees.
If negotiations ensue, the US will continue to demand the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme. North Korea has accepted this goal at least twice before, in agreements in 1994 and 2005. Yet these and lesser commitments in other deals, including on Leap Day 2012, were never fully realised. How Trump can succeed where his predecessors have failed, especially given the shortage of time and talent in the present circumstances, is doubtful.
So far, North Korea is not giving up much. A pause in its missile and nuclear testing while talks continue will not hamper the ongoing refinement of these systems. In any case, Kim claimed in his New Year’s speech this year that North Korea had already attained its strategic goal of possessing a powerful deterrent. This was also the message that came after the successful test flight of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on 29 November.
It is noteworthy that Pyongyang did not insist on a suspension of US–South Korea combined military exercises as a condition for talks, as it usually has in the past. The Foal Eagle field exercise is set to begin in April. Nor did Kim ask for a lifting of US sanctions. North Korea must be given credit for understanding that the US and its partners will continue to apply maximum pressure until concrete steps are made towards denuclearisation.
At what price a handshake?
Kim was after something else. Sitting at the table with the leader of the free world will give Kim the prestige every North Korean leader has sought. Certainly, it’s a status that the dictator does not deserve. The ruler of a nuclear-armed prison state that has violated every international norm in the book – even combining chemical-weapons use with fratricide – does not deserve Trump’s friendly handshake. This is why, at a White House meeting about North Korea in 2003 then-US Vice President Dick Cheney said ‘We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it’.
Yet Cheney’s approach led to the unnecessary invasion of Iraq that year and the horrendously negative consequences that still haunt the Middle East in the form of the terrorism that it unleashed. Diplomacy requires the holding of one’s nose, and dealing with adversaries. A handshake is not a heavy price to pay for the potential benefit.
I do not expect North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. They are too central to its sense of regime preservation. But we cannot know for sure. Until this week, no foreign official had spoken directly with the North Korean leader. (Dennis Rodman does not count.) And only Kim has the authority to make such a momentous decision. South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong and the other members of his five-person delegation were the first outsiders to meet Kim, who hosted at extraordinary four-hour dinner on 5 March. A North–South Korean summit is now set to take place in Panmunjom in April. A Kim–Trump summit would follow. A rare alignment of the firmament is an opportunity not to be wasted.