With the surprise news on Thursday evening that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has offered to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump – and the White House’s swift acceptance of the offer – it seems as though a historic meeting might be in the works.
Never before has a sitting U.S President sat down for talks with a DPRK leader, and with Pyongyang’s apparent willingness to discuss denuclearization, it feels like we’re a long way away from the “fire and fury” of 2017.
But how much has really changed, and is North Korea sincere in its desire to negotiate?
The following experts responded in time for our deadline:
- Andray Abrahamian, visiting fellow at the PacForum
- Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS
- LTG (ret) Chun In-bum, South Korean army
- Park Hwee-rhak, Ph.D. Kookmin University, Grad. School of Politics and Leadership Dean
- Ralph Cossa, president of the PacForum
- Sharon Squassoni, Research professor, George Washington University, board member, Bulletin Atomic Scientists
1. Under what conditions do you see Kim Jong Un really denuclearizing?
Andray Abrahamian: Despite today’s very dramatic news, it’s still difficult to imagine them denuclearizing, certainly in the short term. So the eventual goal of denuclearization is going to have to be quite far away and a number of trust-building measures will have to be enacted on the way to that, and also the United States is going to have to give something up.
In order to get denuclearization – it’s hard to know at this point what the U.S. thinks would be reasonable or politically possible – I think we still have a long way to go. But I’m confident that some interim agreement will be made in the next few weeks that hopefully both sides can follow through on.
I think there is a possibility that he might agree to cut back on the program. But importantly, we will never be able to know, even if he commits to denuclearization, we will never know whether he has given up his nuclear weapons.
The North Koreans can hide fissile material, I doubt there will be verification in this process.
The last time that there was a deal between the U.S. and North Korea, it fell apart because North Korea refused to allow on-site verification. So I’m just personally skeptical.
Traditionally, the North Koreans have always advocated a peace treaty, which to them means the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea. If for them a peace treaty and the right conditions are defined as reduction or withdrawal of U.S forces from Korea, I think we have no chance at any further negotiations.
So this is why I am saying that this is a tough question. I think the only conceivable conditions would be more than just maybe some sort of six-party guarantee of North Korea’s security and if Kim Jong Un’s system is guaranteed, maybe that would be the condition.
Perhaps North Korea might say that they will stop missile development, but I don’t think they will remove the nuclear weapons that they developed with such difficulty.
So I think he will start the process of denuclearization in turn to try and get sanctions lifted, but at the end of the day he’ll insist on some lack of verification that still give them a nuclear capability. Unless of course when the U.S. is prepared to completely end its alliance with South Korea and pull all the forces off the Korean peninsula, and I don’t think we are gonna go that far.
But that would be to me about the only condition that he would accept.
Sharon Squassoni: I think Kim Jong Un will ask for as much as possible. There will be requirements even for the talks: for example, he has said or at least South Korea has reported, that North Korea will stop testing missiles and nuclear weapons while talks are going on. I imagine that the North Koreans may also request that exercises, military exercises with U.S and South Korea be restrained, limited or even held off during talks and that itself will be a difficult to agree to.
The North Koreans for a long time have asked for a peace treaty: they say that their nuclear weapons are in response to security threat from the United States and as long as we are just in the armistice they still feel threatened.
So a peace treaty may be another requirement.
2. What do you think led Kim Jong Un to make such an offer to Donald Trump?
Andray Abrahamian: I think that it’s clear that the sanctions that North Korea is under now are hurting the economy, so that is perhaps the biggest reason. Kim Jong Un really wants to get out from under these sanctions.
I think also they have been watching Donald Trump for the first year of his presidency and understand that he is capable of changing his mind and making dramatic decisions and they are willing to risk meeting with him and seeing if they can find some big agreement.
I think we need to remember there are risks for the North Koreans too. A lot of what we see on Twitter and in the media right away is thinking about the risks to the United States. But the risks are big for North Korea also: if they have a summit and it goes badly, if Trump feels like he’s being played or made to look foolish and walks away, then really the chances of further progress in the relationship are closed off for a while.
So the North Koreans are taking a risk here: but they must have judged that in this moment it’s worth taking a big risk for a potentially big reward.
Bonnie Glaser: It’s difficult to know. It is possible that Kim Jong Un has already achieved his goals in his nuclear program. We don’t know that, but he has already indicated that he has already achieved what he wants to achieve in most recent missile and nuclear capabilities.
The sanctions may in fact be having an impact, maybe it’s increasingly difficult for the regime to get hard currency; they may see that this is a moment of maximum leverage for them to actually engage in dialogue.
And I think Kim recognized that Trump is a deal maker. He may think that he can strike a deal that will help his family remain in power, his regime to remain in charge, and his country remain intact. He may in fact believe that there is a potential that the Trump administration could launch a military strike on North Korea. And he may be seeking avoid that.
Sanctions of course have given him another reason to come to the table so by conducting this offer, to talk, I think he has strategically concluded that he is in a position where he can continue with weapons improvements without any visible tests. I think it’s twofold.
Park Hwee-rhak: I think Kim has completed the nuclear weapon; while he was developing nuclear weapons, they must have had economic difficulties. But now, because they have completed the nuclear weapon, I think he is trying to improve the economic situation in North Korea.
I also think North Korea is trying to make its possession of nuclear weapons a fact.
Thirdly, North Korea might have been worried that the U.S. might take the military option.
Lastly, they might be trying to buy some time to finish up the ICBM development.
He has promised to his people that nuclear weapons and economic prosperity, economic development, can be combined.
He provided the first part but definitely not the second and I think he understands that sanctions need to get lifted.
I can’t really see anything the United States has done: Mr. Trump has really not moderated his rhetoric. And so I’m skeptical that the U.S. has much to do with it.
You have to consider that North Korea has been under sanctions for a long time. Certainly it is possible that Kim Jong Un may have looked at the prospects for sanctions coming off and decided that now would be a good time to make a deal.
I think most people are guessing right now what has motivated Kim Jong Un and what his intentions are, that’s the purpose of a dialogue: to find out more.
3. How much credit would you give to the South Korean government for this development?
Andray Abrahamian: I think Moon Jae-in has done an incredible job ever since he took office. He’s been under pressure from China, from North Korea, and from the United States, and he has very carefully worked to deal with the problems those countries have given him, but not annoyed any of them too much in the process.
So he is really driving this process forward. He has put himself in the middle of Pyongyang and D.C. and positioned himself to act as a bridge, and for now at least both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un seem happy with this arrangement, and are happy to go along with the path that he is making.
Bonnie Glaser: I think without what was accomplished at the Olympics, then we probably would not have had this offer from Kim. Of course I also think that without the maximum pressure policy of the Trump administration the North Koreans might not have gone to the Olympics in the first place.
I think the ROK’s president and administration deserve some credit, but my caveat is that it’s a bit too early to be celebrating anything. There is a long road ahead of us, and I’m not convinced that anything positive is going to come out of it. So it is an opportunity, but any potential summit, whether it’s between North Korea and South Korea or whether it’s between the U.S and North Korea, summits are definitely moments of opportunity, but they are also fraught with risk.
Chun In-bum: I give a lot of credit to the South Korean government. Not because of where we are but because of the level of restraint that is shown in the overture of North Korean proposals and because of the close coordination it has with the United States.
I think the announcement today, which was made in front of the White House in English, I don’t know if it was intended but also it’s visually significant and shows solidarity. The statement itself stressed denuclearization and that the ROK-U.S. alliance is solid. So I give the ROK government credit for those efforts more than the fact that we are able to talk with North Koreans.
If countries including the U.S. and South Korea kept pushing economic sanctions hard on North Korea, the DPRK might have given up nuclear weapons.
But by getting started a little early, I think we are being manipulated by North Korea. I believe long-term peace is more important than temporary peace. I’m not certain if we have not sacrificed potential peace for this momentary peace.
Ralph Cossa: Well I think the South Korean government certainly deserves some credit in making the overtures and also in saying very smart things with the Trump administration to making things out like part of it was President Trump’s idea and giving him a lot of credit for the breakthrough.
I think South Korea played this very well and I have great admiration for President Moon and the way he handled that. Even in insisting that the [Kim-Moon] summit be on the southern part of the DMZ rather than in North Korea is very smart as well. I think he is handling things very well.
Sharon Squassoni: I think it can take a quite a bit of credit. I know that there are analysts or experts, among them many U.S government officials, who think it is only pressure that brings North Korea to the table but it could be several things.
I think South Korea’s willingness to welcome at least North Korean athletes to the Olympics played a key role.
4. Where do you think such a summit is likely to take place and why?
I’m sure the North Koreans will want to put on an incredible show for Donald Trump, and Pyongyang is the only venue where they can really show off and do something incredible like a mass games or some kind of mass display.
If the United States decides sending the President to Pyongyang is too much, perhaps they might be able to try Panmunjom, which is where the North-South summit is going to be, but I think that location is not grand enough for how unprecedented this event will be.
There’s an outside chance it could be Jeju, the Moon administration is really right in the middle of the U.S.-DPRK dialogue, so it would make sense to have South Korea be the venue for these talks either way. Jeju in terms of security and control, would definitely be easier than Seoul.
I certainly think both of those venues should be ruled out.
So the question is whether this is a meeting that maybe should take place in China, the Chinese might be eager to host it. I suppose it is possible that it would take place in South Korea, but I think that’s unlikely. I think it should be in a third country, neither in North Korea nor the U.S.
Chun In-bum: I think Panmunjom is a good place because dictators leaving their country is not an easy thing to do. So for Kim Jong Un, for instance, to leave North Korea for Hawaii or Guam would be too risky. Maybe he could come to Seoul, but he would then not feel comfortable.
So if there’s is such a meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un, Panmunjom would be a good place.
I think Panmunjom is neutral enough for both sides because I don’t think Kim would leave Pyongyang.
But since President Trump has been very unpredictable, we cannot exclude the possibility of Trump going to Pyongyang.
Trump said he is a great deal maker and we haven’t seen any evidence of that yet, and Kim Jong Un certainly gives the impression of being very smart so we’ll see how all of that plays out.
I don’t think that Trump will go to Pyongyang, I don’t think we will invite Kim Jong Un to the United States. I would be pretty shocked if that happened.
The question is then what third country might this occur in.
And you know, I think it is doubtful that it is going to happen in South Korea. The question is does it happen in China? Probably not Russia. A neutral third country might be an option.
5. What are the biggest risks you see surrounding this summit meeting?
Andray Abrahamian: The risks for the United States would be to have a summit meeting, to give up some of the sanctions and make an agreement on U.S. troops on the peninsula, and a peace treaty, before getting any action from the North Koreans towards denuclearization.
I think for the North Koreans the risk is they go in there willing to make some promises but are seen as not acting in good faith somehow and having the summit end without any progress, because it would be difficult for them to move on.
I mean, really though, the risks will come later. Agreements have to be made and it’s difficult to decide what agreements should be made, but then implementing them over a long period of time will also be difficult. I think the summit is kind of low risk: if it doesn’t go well, both sides can try to forget that it happened. If it does go well, they can build on that.
Bonnie Glaser: There are a lot of risks: there is certainly a risk of failure. But there is also the risk of reaching yet another agreement with North Korea to denuclearize that doesn’t produce the results that we want to see. And many Americans I think are rightfully skeptical: North Korea has broken every deal that it has ever made.
So the biggest risk is that they gain some concessions from the U.S. and from other countries that help them to maybe weaken the sanctions or to get more assistance from the outside world. Then at the end of the day, they end up not giving up their nuclear weapons.
That could be several years down the road if we begin to implement an agreement. We may find out the result is just a ruse to begin with and Kim was not really serious about giving up his nuclear weapons, and I think that’s the biggest risk.
Chun In-bum: So talking and negotiating are very different things. I think we’re talking about “talking”, coming out to the table and talking details. Already in the statement, we see words like “North Korea will refrain” on further nuclear tests and that Kim Jong Un is committed to denuclearization and on the other hand the United States and ROK have denuclearization as a firm goal. The devil is in the details: as we go into negotiations, that’s where the biggest risks will be.
Now this is the last chance. I hope North Korea realizes where they are and they make the right kind of decisions. And none of this baloney they’ve been exhibiting the past twenty years.
This might lead South Koreans to think that North Korea’s nuclear weapon are no longer a threat to us.
Ralph Cossa: The biggest risk would be that North Koreans are able to have their cake and eat it too, they’ll get a lifting of economic sanctions in return for promises they won’t deliver on. And as a result, the momentum and pressure we’ve been putting on them will break.
To me, that’s the biggest risk: that it could fall apart.
Sharon Squassoni: That’s a good question. There is a risk that a poorly planned or executed meeting could increase tensions but tensions are pretty high. They have been pretty high over the last year anyway so it’s a little hard for me to imagine that the meeting could make this worse.
However, this is President Trump we are talking about. Anything is possible and I suppose one of the biggest risks is that either or both sides have certain expectations that are not matched in the summit.
It will be a very tricky set of meetings and negotiations and unfortunately I don’t think the U.S is very well equipped right now to conduct them. With the retirement of ambassador Joe Yun, we don’t have anybody in place who have a whole lot of experience with this as far as negotiating with countries that have a history like North Korea does.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Gage Skidmore
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