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North Korea

Can Donald Trump act as a ‘stabiliser’ to ensure the US-North Korea summit succeeds?

John Barry Kotch says the upcoming meeting between the US president and the North Korean leader can be productive without falling into Kim Jong-un’s trap, if practical steps and ongoing meetings are put to good use

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 5:35pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 6:33pm

The announcement of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s offer to meet US President Donald Trump, and the latter’s acceptance, has provided a welcome – if surprising – shift from a military to a diplomatic track on the Korean peninsula and scrambled the calculations of the experts.

There is both danger – for those who fear a trap, given Pyongyang’s disappointing track record on nuclear negotiations – and opportunity, bringing to mind the late Robert Kennedy, who “dreamed of things that never were and asked, why not?” And while it would be wrong to dismiss this as merely a trap set by the North, it would be similarly short-sighted not to insist on that Reaganesque maxim: “Trust, but verify”.

All things are now possible, even a new security formula for a Korean peninsula caught in a time warp most visible in the 21st-century state-of-the-art Peace House at Panmunjom, which adjoins several nondescript Quonset huts.

The roles of the multiple interlocutors in this affair should be carefully scrutinised. Kim has once again surprised, showing himself to be “the disrupter” while South Korean President Moon Jae-in plays the role of “bridge builder”, adroitly and successfully coaxing the North to the negotiating table with the Pyeongchang Olympics – the outcome of the planned inter-Korean summit in April now setting the stage for the Trump-Kim encounter.

All of which leaves Trump in the unaccustomed but critical role of “stabiliser”, with an unprecedented opportunity to reconfigure the security framework and create a more stable peninsula.

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Notwithstanding the effectiveness of deterrence in defending the South against a potential attack from the North, the dominant danger on the peninsula today, as in recent decades, is political instability driven by the escalating North Korean nuclear and missile threats. In the long term, only negotiations to end the North’s nuclear weapons programme coupled with multilateral security guarantees by Washington and Beijing for both Koreas can remove this ongoing danger.

As a Korean war combatant and party to the Armistice Agreement that ended the conflict, China’s participation is indispensable in developing a package of “security assurances”, which the North has insisted on. At the same time, Russia, the other power bordering the Korean peninsula, would have a critical role in denuclearisation, akin to its depository role for Iran’s enriched uranium, possibly under a UN Security Council and/or International Atomic Energy Agency mandate.

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Further, inasmuch as Kim did not insist on the suspension of joint US-South-Korean military exercises as a quid pro quo for forgoing testing of nuclear devices or missiles while negotiations take place, this would be an opportune moment to invite North Korea to observe military exercises in the interests of transparency, tension reduction and confidence building. This would inject relevance into the moribund 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea, which could lead to the reintroduction of the joint patrols in the demilitarised zone provided for in the armistice. In addition, the 1992 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula provides a ready road map for that process.

Although summits between heads of state traditionally follow a strict protocol preceded by negotiations at the working level, putting the cart before the horse is not necessarily a fatal flaw if agreement exists on the overarching goal and how to get there. By providing the requisite impetus, direction and guidance, functioning in effect as “overseers” of a complex and protracted process of denuclearisation with the participation of foreign ministers, assistant secretaries and working-level negotiators, the two “summiteers” would ultimately be responsible for assessing progress on a quarterly basis at the foreign minister level and perhaps through semi-annual summits.

Strategy required on offer by North Korea

Nor should Kim be judged by the same standard as his father, Kim Jong-il, or his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, each of whom operated in a less inhospitable political environment.

Although in a stronger position militarily by dint of rapid advances in the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the young North Korean leader is also more isolated internationally, without any real allies, while faced with biting UN Security Council sanctions supported, to varying degrees, by China and Russia as part of a “maximum pressure” multinational campaign led by the US.

The replacement of Rex Tillerson, as US secretary of state, by CIA director Mike Pompeo is certain to affect planning in the lead-up to any summit, as well as the opening US negotiating position, effectively marrying intelligence to policymaking. The new secretary of state is also likely to be more in sync with Trump’s own inclinations; he did famously tell Tillerson that he was “wasting his time” on diplomatic outreach to the North.

DMZ, Geneva, Beijing: search is on for the best summit site for Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un

Pompeo will be determined to hold Kim to his promise not to carry out any more nuclear or missile tests while negotiations are in progress, and while the campaign of “maximum pressure” continues and annual US and South Korean military exercises go forward as planned. He is also known to be sceptical regarding the prospects of a binding agreement with Kim’s regime, which is closing in on the capability to fire a nuclear weapon onto an American city. This will make negotiations more time-consuming, but also more realistic.

Finally, with respect to venue, a neutral setting would have the advantage of providing a fresh start while avoiding those associated with failed negotiations, such as Geneva and Beijing, which might be better suited for working-level negotiations. While the Peace House in the DMZ has been mentioned more often than other prospective venues, the optics are unfavourable for the US side, conveying an image of an American president travelling halfway around the world to meet a North Korean dictator on the North’s doorstep, scarcely 160km from its capital in Pyongyang.

Query: is Kim willing to put some distance between the summit site and the Hermit Kingdom? A neutral location in Asia, such as the Philippines or Palau, would get my vote.

John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant