By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
South Korea will this week push ahead with its northern neighbor to prepare for Donald Trump’s proposed summit with Kim Jong-un — the first time a sitting US president will have met with a North Korean supreme leader. While the meeting has been characterized by some as a “Nixon goes to China” moment, there are key differences with the Trump-Kim meeting and indeed question marks remain over whether the session will actually take place at all.
A striking factor in Trump’s decision to meet with Kim is how spur of the moment the decision was, and with little detailed preparation, at least to date. By contrast, Nixon’s visit to see Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1972 came after years of contact-building and diplomacy by Nixon, Henry Kissinger and others.
By contrast, it is not clear that Trump has a comprehensive, clear or coherent strategy toward the meeting, and his team is going through a key transition to boot. Not only has Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but his Special Representative for North Korea Joseph Yun has recently retired, and he has no ambassador in Seoul.
Moreover, there are numerous media reports that Trump is also on the cusp of sacking National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. One potential alternative reportedly mooted is hawk John Bolton — formerly US Ambassador to the UN in the George W. Bush administration — who has called talks with Pyongyang a waste of time, and therefore advocates a pre-emptive military strike.
In this context, the end of May deadline for the landmark meeting is looking increasingly optimistic. With Tillerson departing from office at the end of this month, US planning for the meeting will increasingly turn to his nominated successor — CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Yet confirmation hearings for Pompeo will not start until next month and May (which will be his first full month in the job should he be confirmed by the Senate) is already full of foreign policy calendar dates. These includes matters regarding the Iran nuclear deal and moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem following the president’s intensely controversial decision earlier this year.
It is not only the contrast between Trump-North Korea and Nixon-China that is striking, but also the level of preparation that the US last undertook when planning a major engagement with a communist regime: That is, when Barack Obama opened up the relationship with Cuba under Raul Castro. Before Obama made his landmark 2016 trip, there were extensive high-level consultations between Washington and Havana. This included many months of negotiations between the US administration and the Castro team.
The meeting with Kim contains much complexity for Trump around US alliances, the non-proliferation regime, and what exactly will constitute “denuclearization” on the peninsula. And it is noteworthy that Pyongyang has not yet publicly confirmed, independently, the invitation to Trump, which came through South Korea, nor the pledges relayed to Washington that Kim is “committed to denuclearization;” will halt all nuclear and missile tests; and that it understands US-South Korean military drills “must continue.”
As astute US officials acknowledge, it is very likely that Kim will want to win economic and political concessions from Trump before any reduction in his nuclear capabilities, let alone committing to “full denuclearization.” And, in this context, the head of the US Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris warned against over-optimism regarding the outcome of the Trump-Kim meeting.
Past history indicates that Harris is right that Trump should go into the meeting with “eyes wide open,” given the numerous previous US attempts to get Pyongyang to denuclearize. This includes the six-party talks that collapsed in 2009, mainly because North Korea refused to allow inspectors to verify that it had shut down its nuclear programs.
Several subsequent attempts have been made to restart the talks, but all collapsed. This included in 2012, when Pyongyang launched a missile two weeks after announcing a deal with Washington that had promised food aid in return for inspections and a moratorium on rocket tests.
For its part, Seoul has stressed the Trump-Kim summit will only go ahead if the right conditions are met. President Moon Jae-in, who has made peace with the North his top priority, now wants Pyongyang to take credible, verifiable and concrete steps toward denuclearization, and both he and Trump agree that “concrete actions” not words are key.
Despite all the uncertainty still surrounding the summit, one big reason it could yet go ahead and be a success is China. In announcing the historic meeting, Trump thanked President Xi Jinping, saying that Beijing “continues to be helpful.”
This underlines the importance of China, North Korea’s top trading partner, which has ratcheted up the diplomatic and sanctions pressure against Pyongyang. For as long as Beijing — which has said US-North Korea relations are “heading in the right direction” — is on board with international efforts, these may stand a significantly greater chance of success than in the past, especially if Trump develops and follows a clear and credible negotiating strategy.
Taken overall, any eventual Trump-Kim summit would prove historic, especially if a significant agreement is struck. However, this is far from certain and much rests on Beijing’s influence with Pyongyang as final preparations are made this spring for the landmark session.
*Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics