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Foreign Policy

The US-DPRK Summit May End With Whimper, Bang

Mar 15 , 2018
  • Wang Fan

    Assistant President, China Foreign Affairs University


The whole world was astonished by the news of a summit between the US and the DPRK. If it materializes, the event can only be measured in Nobel Peace Prize terms. Leaders of China and the United States have exchanged views about this development. The Russian foreign minister, the German chancellor, and scores of other world leaders have spoken favorably about it.

Mindful of the complex and capricious history of the Korean nuclear question, I now feel an overwhelming worry about this summit. Obviously, the summit has an extremely high diplomatic value. But if it cannot address and solve the real problem, it will be of little use even if it goes smoothly. Like dramas, the Korean nuclear question has often outrun people’s comprehension and imagination. But its fundamental theme, namely denuclearization and regime preservation, never changes. What is more, one critical concern, the “procedural paradox” as I call it, remains unaddressed till this very day.

This article tries to dissect factors that may stand in the way of a successful summit.

First is the procedural paradox. This is nothing new. The US wants the DPRK to dismantle its nuclear program before getting security guarantees. The DPRK, on the other hand, will not give up its nuclear program unless the US gives those guarantees. I don’t see any reason why either of them will now change their positions. The White House spokesperson has asked DPRK to take “concrete steps” before the summit. It seems both sides are only after their immediate concerns, such as reducing tension and sanctions (for the DPRK) and preventing yet another nuclear test (for the US). Former US Secretary of State John Kerry spent years dealing with the Iran nuclear issue. He believed that sanctions on DPRK were far less severe than those on Iran. Others in the US are saying that if the North Koreans do not take concrete actions, then sanctions and military drills should not be called off. With sanctions still in place and military drills soon to resume after the Winter Olympics, can the summit take place at all?

Second, given the summit’s high attractiveness to politicians, will they stay clear of any traps? In the history of the Korean nuclear question, all high-level meetings and all periods of reduced tension were simply used by the DPRK to advance its nuclear program. Will this summit be any different? Has the DPRK completed all the nuclear and missile tests it needs? If it has not, will it test again after the summit? And how will the US respond? Given this, it is highly likely that the US will attempt to draw a line, spelling out terms against possible strategic deception, including additional conditions and punitive clauses. But if too many conditions are put on the table, the DPRK may simply turn its back on the summit.

In retrospect, the US has not really been eager to see the Korean nuclear question settled, because it was not a primary security concern for it in the first place and the cost of solving it was too high. Even if politicians wanted to do it, they balked at some point for fear of getting too entangled in a thorny issue. Barack Obama’s attitude on this throughout his term of office can be summed up in one word, procrastination, or strategic patience, as they call it. Is the US ready this time to address the crisis?

What is more, if the summit does take place, it means the US has given up its long-standing position of denuclearization before normalization and replaced it with one of nuclear freeze or nuclear test suspension. That will be a huge concession on the part of the United States. There is another reason why the Americans have been reluctant to talk to North Koreans, because talking, in their view, is tantamount to recognizing the DPRK as a nuclear state. That is why the White House insisted on the DPRK taking concrete steps towards denuclearization.

Another element that needs attention is the immense cost of dismantling the DPRK’s nuclear program. Who is going to pay for that? Could the DPRK be expected to start denuclearizing without some kind of assurance and financial guarantee?

By offering to hold a summit and to freeze or abandon its nuclear program, the DPRK is aiming to get out of its current predicament. What if it needs to go back on its word again? The results are difficult to predict, and can be dangerous. Thus, the DPRK will find it extremely difficult to make a clear commitment.

Third, the safety issue of the DPRK leader. The fate of the DPRK nuclear program is directly and intimately related to the country’s top leader. Any mishap will affect the entire situation hugely. The choice of summit venue is both crucial and sensitive. Kim Jong-un has never been abroad since becoming leader. Will he travel to the ROK or more distant Sweden or Switzerland for the meeting with the American leader? Neither the DPRK nor the ROK can ensure his absolute safety. The possibility of Kim’s younger sister attending the summit on his behalf or bringing his letters there cannot be ruled out. But in that case, the significance of the summit will hugely diminish and may not even be worthy of the name.

By conventional reasoning, such a summit will not take place at all. But an historic occasion like this has an irresistible appeal to politicians. The DPRK has long been known for its erratic behavior. Now we have the US following suit. With the top leaders of the two countries acting together, the situation becomes more uncertain and unpredictable.

Anyone who has minimum knowledge of the Korean nuclear question can predict that aside from the formality of a face-to-face meeting, the summit will accomplish almost nothing if no conditions are set, and the summit will not materialize at all if too many conditions are put on the table. In any case, it’s difficult to expect solutions to the real problem. Trump is well known for his lack of professional training and poor knowledge of historical details. He often acts on intuition, which adds one more factor to an uncertain summit. If things go wrong, the summit will become an easy target for opposition attacks and criticism.

The summit can result in success, failure, or partial success in the case of a lower level meeting. In any case, it will affect the Korean Peninsula.

If the summit is held with no conditions, then the parties will find it easier to renege on whatever they reach there. The summit may just fizzle out without a conclusion, or end up as a farce. Let us be patient and just watch calmly.

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