2017 witnessed the exchange of harsh rhetoric, provocations, and military threats between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. However, in 2018, North Korea has lowered its voice, moderated its tone, and launched several charm offensives including Kim’s New Year address, participating in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, and a proposed meeting between Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in April. Now, Kim has proposed meeting with President Trump in late May. The setting of the announcement was unusual, as it was made by South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-Yong during a visit to the White House. Whatever the case, this proposed meeting could lower the tensions from 2017, and open a new phase of diplomacy.
This announcement was greeted with skepticism in the United States, and questioning the sincerity of North Korea's invitation is somewhat justified, considering the track record of frustrating dialogues with Pyongyang in the past two decades. In the 1990s, both negotiated the Agreed Framework, but later on North Korea was found to be developing a clandestine uranium enrichment program. Just a year after the six parties reached a Joint Statement in September 19, 2005, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. After several rounds of negotiations, North Korea and the United States reached the Leap Day Deal in February 2012, but that agreement lasted only a few weeks before falling apart because of North Korea's satellite launch in April. And then, there were also lots of track 1.5 and track 2 dialogues, but none of those achieved anything substantial for denuclearization. Now, will the proposed summit be "possible progress" or "false hope"?
One day after the announcement, the White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested the meeting would depend on concrete actions taken by North Korea. Past US-North Korea exchanges have been subject to frequent hassles. Things could change faster than expected. Even if they could meet somewhere in late May without any other setbacks before then, the summit itself would be no easy thing.
The first question could be whether President Trump's team is ready for it. While the cheeseburger summit was announced, the chef might not be ready yet. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was undermined by his boss last year whenever he tried to move forward with diplomacy, and it is rumored that he will leave soon. The latest development is that President Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster might leave as well. Meanwhile, the hawkish former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs John Bolton was interviewed by President Trump, and nobody knows what kind of role he might play in his administration. Nikki Haley, the current American Ambassador to the United Nations, is not necessarily a positive player with regard to diplomacy with North Korea either. Joseph Yun, the point person in the State Department who orchestrated the release of the dying American student Otto Warmbier from North Korea, announced his retirement last month, and there is no replacement yet. More than a year into his presidency, Trump has not nominated an ambassador to South Korea. There are two veteran diplomats who are experienced on the North Korean nuclear issue, Susan Thornton and Mark Lambert, but both of them are serving only in acting roles. It is not easy for President Trump to assemble a team of Korea experts within two months. When the Obama administration negotiated with Iran, a detailed and technical agreement was drafted beforehand. If the Trump administration wants to do business in any serious terms, it should be well prepared before May. Certainly, this singular president may not use the old playbook.
The next question would be what to talk about. Both are supposed to deliver something to their domestic and international audiences. North Korea has indicated a willingness to talk about denuclearization, and refrain from any further nuclear and missile tests, but President Trump wants North Korea to match its promises with concrete and verifiable actions. How to define "concrete actions" and how to verify? All these talking points sound familiar to veteran observers. President Trump has been boasting that he can make deals, but Kim stated in his New Year address that North Korea has at last come to possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent, which no force and nothing can reverse. Suppose North Korea can offer something big with regard to denuclearization, what can Trump offer? So far, the United States insists that its joint drills with South Korea will continue as planned, and it will not step back or change its maximum pressure campaign. How can they square the circle, and produce something conducive to further progress and acceptable to both sides?
Reviewing the past could be very frustrating, but it is still worth giving diplomacy a try. The North Korea nuclear issue has reached a critical point, and the window for diplomacy is narrowing. The remaining options are not desirable at all. President Trump’s and Kim's rhetoric and actions last year were alarming, and any military conflict, whether intended or accidental, is no longer something beyond imagination. The consequences will be unbearable for North Koreans, South Koreans, and other peoples in the region. Even if military conflict can be avoided, a stalemate is unacceptable to all parties. For North Korea, the sanctions against it are harsh. For the United States, a nuclear armed North Korea with the capability of striking the continental US is unacceptable, not to mention the implications for the international nonproliferation regime, and repercussions in Northeast Asia. Thus, if neither a military option nor a nuclear armed North Korea is acceptable, diplomacy is something worth exploring. Both North Korea and the United States have made commitments in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks, they have to talk the talk and walk the walk instead of shifting burdens to other countries.
A possible Trump-Kim Summit is definitely a great opportunity for both to test their intentions in direct talks, and hopefully the two egoistic top leaders can make it rather than break it.