Two so-called ‘historic’ moments in one week, for the optimists in the whole debate surrounding how can we best deal with North Korea. Despite the excitement revolving around these moments, deals do not come quickly.
The visit and return of South Korean officials to and from Pyongyang came with the announcement that North Korea has a willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons given the right conditions, and reconcile with the U.S. Then came the White House special announcement that President Trump plans to meet Kim Jong un as early as May of this year. South Korean National Security official Chung Eui Yong stated Kim is ‘committed to denuclearization, and pledges to refrain from nuclear or missile tests.’ In addition, Kim ‘understands that the joint ROK-US military tests must continue’, expressing his ‘eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible.’
Should the Trump-Kim talks go ahead in May, one month after the inter-Korean talks are set to be held at Panmunjom, it will be the first time a serving US president has met with a North Korean leader. Clinton never met Kim Il Sung, Bush pushed meeting Kim Jong Il to the side, and Obama’s strategic patience meant just that, but perhaps Trump is different to his predecessors, as has been a constant focal point to his pre and post-election statements.
Trump knows the art of the deal, and this may serve as an opportune time for the President to showcase his expertise on making deals with one of the world’s toughest dealmakers. Kim Jong un is a man who has been known for the art of refusing to make concessions that will have direct changes on the status quo, for a country which, this year, celebrates 70 years since its founding, and the success of three generations of Kim Dynasty rule. For these polar opposites, a deal may miraculously emerge, but deals do not come quickly. As for the South Korean side, President Moon Jae-in’s hailed this announcement as a ‘miracle.’ It is a huge domestic boost for the President often criticized for his soft approach to North Korea, and this could mean Moon goes one step further than the last pro-dialogue President Kim Dae-Jung, in actually effecting change with their counterparts north of the 38th Parallel.
But this has all happened incredibly quickly. North Korea seems to be being unusually receptive to the hostile international world order that it continues to invoke, and the state run by a hard-of-hearing dotard, warmonger, and lunatic, as President Trump has been described by North Korean state media. The Trump-Kim meeting will be the meeting of ‘fire and fury’ with ‘rocket man’, and the North’s somewhat conciliatory approach as of late seems incongruous with the ongoing war of words that has characterized Trump’s foreign relations with the state.
Yet we must remember that whilst Trump may be the master of the deal, he is no diplomat, and he is no politician. The inchoate nature of his North Korea policy has not been difficult to spot, and what about the gulf between these two states that seems ever expanding: militarily, strategically, geopolitically, ideologically. Will Trump pull it off?
Trump, in his true bumbling style, seems to have rushed into this with open arms – two months seem hardly sufficient for both sides to formulate comprehensive points for dialogue. Cynically, maybe this was always North Korea’s intention: to give Trump what he promised in his pre-election campaign, of wanting to ‘eat a hamburger’ with Kim Jong un, in full aware that Trump could not resist this temptation. Yet what these talks may lead to is highly questionable. Kim’s recognition of the need for US-ROK military exercises to continue may not actually be a concession after all, and just a mere act of diplomacy to show North Korea is willing, at least for now, to play by the rules of the power-political game. Kim’s commitment to denuclearization was an echo of one of the outcomes of the ROK-DPRK talks, and given the North’s past history of not practising what it preaches, this must be borne in mind.
We all hope that dialogue works, and that positive progress in the face of denuclearization, whether a long-term freeze or a committed plan to abandon nuclear weapons takes place. Sadly, history speaks. For a country that has spent over forty years – some may say more – cultivating its nuclear program, mastering the art of dealing with sanctions, evading them, whilst making little tangible improvement on its domestic governance and the lives of its citizens, why abandon nuclear weapons now? If the conditions for dialogue are insufficient to both parties, but particularly the North, dialogue will not even go ahead, and it is important that despite Kim’s call for denuclearization, that Trump does not rush in with this as the starting point. But in order for any progress to be made, dialogue needs to happen: the question is when.
It is truly difficult to ask as to what North Korea, the state, and the ruling regime, wants. What does it serve to gain from these talks, apart from hubris and concerns of international status? One of Kim Jong un’s ultimate goals has been to ensure that North Korea is recognized internationally as a nuclear state, and the dangers of dialogue – especially one that is rushed – may, ironically backfire against any hope of progress on the nuclear issue. An undesirable outcome of the Trump-Kim talks could be the unsaid acceptance of this eventuality. And why are we so obsessed at calling it a ‘summit’? Summits happen when deals are done. We haven’t even started yet.
So time is of the essence, more so now than ever. The art of the business deal is not the same as the art of doing diplomatic ‘business’ with North Korea. North Korea has taken time to develop its nuclear capabilities, of which it shows few signs of disposing in a rush. Trump must bear this in mind, for rushing into deals may lead to the making of no deals at all.