ISSN 2330-717X

What Will Kim And Trump Talk About? – OpEd


By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein*

(FPRI) — The news that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has invited Donald Trump for talks, and that Trump has accepted, is surely a breakthrough given the past months of sky-high tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program. The two are tentatively set to meet in May of this year, but there is still a long way to go: talks could falter at the planning stage over issues such as what should be on the table, or where the parties should meet (or who should represent the countries). But for now, this is at least a step back from the brink that the world looked to be standing at only a few weeks or months ago.

Still – and I hate to rain on the negotiation parade – it remains unclear precisely what the two are likely to talk about, or what the possibilities and limits are to any progress. A meeting resolves nothing in its own right, and neither the US nor North Korea has changed its most fundamental stances: the US still sees North Korean denuclearization as the ultimate goal of talks, while North Korea still seems unlikely to abolish its nuclear weapons.

Both North Korea and the US appear to be flexible enough in their positions to think it worthwhile to meet. That is a good thing. After the past months of war bluster, much of the world is probably already breathing a collective sigh of relief.

When Kim Jong-un met with a South Korean delegation in Pyongyang a few days ago, he stated that North Korea would hold back on any nuclear or missile tests while engaged in talks with the US, even if the US and South Korea go through with military exercises that North Korea sees as provocations and rehearsals for war on the peninsula. Perhaps, most importantly, South Korean President Moon’s envoy who met with Kim Jong-un, Chung Eui-yong, said Kim had stated that North Korea was prepared to denuclearize in exchange for “security guarantees.”

At the face of it, that all sounds very promising. The problem is, however, that it has never been fully clear what the US and North Korea, respectively, really expect and hope for through talks. For North Korea, “security guarantees” could mean a whole range of things. Withdrawal of US troops from South Korea may just be the beginning. After all, the US does not need to have ground troops present in South Korea to be able to target North Korea militarily should it wish to do so. What if North Korea’s demands turn out to be much more ambitious – such as US withdrawal from the region entirely, or even reciprocal curtailments of the US’s own nuclear arsenal?

In short, North Korea may come to make demands that the US would be highly unlikely to meet. For now, no one knows for sure exactly what North Korea wants in terms of security guarantees, and having seen what happened to dictators such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to put his faith in a peace treaty or the like.

Moreover, Kim Jong-un’s initiative for negotiations should not be seen merely as a sign that sanctions and “maximum pressure” are taking such a toll on the regime that it has no choice but to negotiate. Rather, it may be because Kim feels so confident in the credibility of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent that he is willing to sit down and talk. Kim’s action is likely the result of a mix of factors, from the pinch of outside pressure to confidence in North Korea’s position. After all, Kim Jong-un’s strategic situation is much stronger than that of his father was during the Six Party Talks, North Korea now having conducted successful tests of ballistic missiles that many observers believe demonstrate a capacity to strike at the US mainland. No matter what North Korea’s reasoning behind the overture may be, it would be a mistake to see it merely as a sign of weakness. For the past few months, ever since Kim Jong-un reached out to Moon Jae-in over the Olympics, developments on the Korean peninsula have been driven by North Korean actions. Moon Jae-in has proved himself a highly skilled diplomat in getting the US and North Korea to a position where both are willing to talk, but it’s important to remember that for most of the developments throughout this current crisis, North Korea has held the initiative.

The news of an upcoming meeting is progress – for now. The hardest part – actual negotiations – still lies ahead.

About the author:
* Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein
is an Associate Scholar with FPRI, focusing primarily on the Korean Peninsula and East Asian region. He is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where he researches the history of surveillance and social control in North Korea, and a co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch.

This article was published by FPRI.

Click here to have Eurasia Review's newsletter delivered via RSS, as an email newsletter, via mobile or on your personal news page.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

3 thoughts on “What Will Kim And Trump Talk About? – OpEd

  • March 9, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    No more role for US then in the Korean Peninsula if they sort out their stand off with KIM Jong Un. There will be no more threats from North Korea to South Korea. The Koreans would probably then unite like China: One country, two system.

    One window is still open for US as super power: Iran versus the Peninsula Arabs. Again, as Israel is gaining popularity in the Middle East, there is a high probability that US will also loose to ascending Israel as they seem more reliable than declining power of America!

  • March 10, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    I would read that as an extension of the tit-for-tat tweets between Trump and Kim. Trump said during his election campaign that he would sit down with Kim and “talk while eating hamburgers.” So why not accept Kim’s invitation for talks? Just a response in kind. But nothing’s clear beyond that.

    Trump has made it clear that “denuclearization” means “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear program. There is no way for Kim to meet that demand, unless North Korea wants to offer all their underground facilities, where most of their nuclear warheads are believed to be hidden, for US inspection and verification. To me, “a summit by May” sounds more like Trump’s ultimatum to Kim.

  • March 11, 2018 at 9:40 am

    What will Kim and Trump talk about? Be prepared to be surprised: guaranteeing North Korea’s security interests against China. China has the capacity, and the long-cultivated animus, to do much more harm to not only North Korea but to the Kim regime long-term than does the US. Would the US colonize North Korea? No – as it did not colonize Japan, Germany, Italy, Cuba, Philippines, and several others vanquished by its military successes over its history. Would China colonize North Korea? It is well within the realm of possibilities – and Kim knows this. So, Kim denuclearizes in exchange for US protection against invasions or occupations of any kind. Kim would also need to liberalize North Korean society to include respect for human rights. This arrangement would likely last through his life, leaving it to the next generations on North Koreans to decide the legacy and fate of the Kim dynasty.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *