North Korea

US-North Korea talks have many obstacles to overcome – starting with where to meet

Donald Kirk says the first hurdle in preparing the US-North Korea summit is the US’ unwillingness to meet Kim Jong-un on his home turf. However, a compromise only means moving on to thornier issues, like North Korea’s definition of ‘denuclearise’ and American unwillingness to withdraw from South Korea

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 10:24am

US and North Korean contacts, in secret talks about the time and place of a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, are at odds on at least one critical question.

The North Koreans, in unpublicised meetings with the Americans, are saying they want Trump to see Kim in Pyongyang. The Americans, of course, do not want Trump visiting North Korea, where Kim would be in the role of a head of state receiving the American guest as a supplicant seeking his approval.

Instead, in conversations via the CIA, the Americans are pressing for the talks to be held in the capital of a third country or in the truce village of Panmunjom on the North-South line, 60km north of Seoul. That’s where South Korean President Moon Jae-in is due to meet Kim on April 27, and the Americans see no reason why Kim cannot go to Panmunjom for his summit with Trump, tentatively agreed upon to take place in May.

The Americans see the idea of Trump going to Pyongyang as another attempt on the part of Kim and his team of strategists to create obstructions to any serious attempt at negotiating an end to the North’s nuclear programme. It might seem inconceivable that Trump would go to Pyongyang to meet Kim, but what if North Korea refused to budge?

Would the result be no summit – and North and South Korea both blaming the US for refusing to accommodate North Korea’s demands? Or would North Korea, if sincerely interested in a summit, accept other suggestions?

One possibility that has come up lately is Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. That would be an extremely interesting setting since Mongolia has, in recent years, been adopting a carefully contrived position between its huge neighbours to the north and south – Russia and China – and also looking for close ties with other Asian nations, notably Japan, as well as the US and European Union.

The US, if there were no better choice, would accept Panmunjom even though the Joint Security Area evokes memories of a number of nasty confrontations. The worst was in 1976, in which North Korean troops beat to death two young US army officers who were leading a mission to trim a tree that obstructed their line of sight.

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So far, however, the talks between the Americans and North Koreans on a Trump-Kim summit have been going on with few details publicly announced. All we know for sure is that the North Koreans have told the Americans they are willing to talk about giving up their nuclear programme. That confirmation comes from the White House, not North Korea, which has not publicly committed to denuclearisation, and had said not one word publicly about meeting with the US until Tuesday.

Sources in Washington have let it be known that the Central Intelligence Agency has been having secret meetings with North Koreans at which they’ve been talking over possible arrangements for a Trump-Kim summit. At the same time, the State Department has had emissaries talking to members of North Korea’s United Nations mission in New York.

The driving force on the American side is Mike Pompeo, the outgoing CIA director, who’s in line to become secretary of state once the Senate confirms his appointment. Trump named Pompeo as successor to Rex Tillerson, whom he had come to distrust for a relatively soft position, even though Tillerson had said clearly that the era of “strategic patience”, as enunciated during the presidency of Barack Obamawas over.

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Trump presumably will adopt a firm position in whatever he has to say to Kim. At his side will be the new national security adviser, John Bolton, who has come to be regarded as an extremely hawkish hawk, while insisting the US should never stop demanding that Kim agree to nothing short of complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation. Pompeo is also a hardliner who, while serving as a member of the US House of Representatives, called for “regime change” in North Korea as the best way to counter Kim’s nuclear ambitions.

Neither Trump nor any members of his government are talking about a “pre-emptive strike” against the North’s nuclear and missile facilities, but they do say sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and the US have to remain in place until the North makes a deal that would mean the end to its nuclear ambitions. The Americans and North Koreans, as any talks are sure to reveal, have very different ideas about denuclearisation – North Korea is not likely to agree to any deal for doing away with the 20 or so warheads that it’s already got but might promise not to go on producing them.

The North would be sure to demand, however, that the US pull most of its troops out of South Korea and give up its bases. That would be impossible, however, because the US is in the process of completing its new base at Camp Humphreys, southwest of Seoul, for most of its forces.

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As of now, some 30,000 people are on the base at Camp Humphreys, including soldiers, civilian employees and their families. Besides training facilities and barracks, the base features a modern shopping centre, schools and other facilities. In addition, there’s a 2,500-metre airstrip mainly for transport planes. Osan Air Base, a few kilometres to the east, meanwhile, has a 3,000-metre airstrip from which a full range of warplanes regularly take off on training and surveillance missions.

Considering this enormous investment, it would seem unlikely that the US is preparing to give it up in a “grand bargain” with the North Koreans or, for that matter, the Chinese. The base, by now America’s largest overseas facility, is there to stay, both for defence against North Korea and deployment of forces elsewhere. Yes, it’s outside North Korean artillery range but still a target, in theory, for a missile or nuclear attack that will hopefully never happen if North Korea comes to terms with South Korea and the US. 

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea