US-North Korea summit location is still up in the air, but it will be determined by down-to-earth factors
John Barry Kotch says the security, symbolism and anticipated substance of the meeting will determine the selection of a venue for the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Vladivostok, Shanghai, Geneva and Berlin are possible contenders
On April 27, the leaders of North and South Korea are scheduled to hold their first summit in a decade during which inter-Korean relations have steadily deteriorated as the North Korean nuclear crisis escalated.
The two Koreas have gone down this road before at the June 2000 and follow-on 2007 Pyongyang summits, long on symbolism but short on substance and ultimately negated by successive conservative South Korean administrations. They have much to catch up on: a lost decade has seen the closing of the Mount Kumgang recreation and visitation venue for families divided by the Korean war, the Keaesong economic zone which functioned as a quasi-permanent economic bridge between North and South, as well as ambitious plans for a West Sea Peace Zone to promote the exploitation of marine resources, among other projects.
And while a broad range of issues, including enhancing political and economic relations, cultural exchanges and tension-reduction measures, tops the list, everything depends on the Trump-Kim summit a month later which can be reduced to one word – “denuclearisation” – to which the two sides do not attach the same meaning.
Although the twin summits are joined at the hip to the extent that progress in North-South relations is largely dependent on progress on “denuclearisation”, the North-South summit will set the table for the main event because the US and South Korea pursue a collaborative diplomacy vis-à-vis Pyongyang. Moreover, a successful inter-Korean summit, of which the surest sign would be a follow-on reciprocal summit in each other’s capitals, is likely to have a positive impact on the Trump-Kim meeting.
The US and North Korea have a similarly chequered diplomatic history. Although out of office at the time, former president Jimmy Carter negotiated a nuclear inspection agreement with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, paving the way for the 1994 US-North Korean Agreed Framework, seemingly ending the North Korean weapons of mass destruction programme. Subsequently, president Bill Clinton presided over a White House summit with Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, Kim Jong-il’s personal representative, bearing an invitation from the North Korean leader to visit Pyongyang. Nevertheless, the communique ostensibly ending enmity with North Korea proved to be a false spring. Both milestones were undone by the hardline policy pursued by the George W. Bush administration and North Korea’s pursuit of a uranium enrichment programme.
Whereas in real estate, the three most important factors are location, location, location, the key determinants of a venue in high-stakes summitry are security, symbolism and substance. In short, a site must be secure, have a positive image and be in sync with the expected outcome. Will the summit be deliberative, an exchange of views and staking out of positions, or decisive, leading to concrete agreements and possibly a grand bargain, such as a commitment to dismantle the North Korean nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees?
Which locations are in the running? At the top of my list are Vladivostok, Shanghai, Geneva and Berlin, with Stockholm and Pyongyang dark horses. While Pyongyang would be ideal for Kim to showcase a summit with the world’s most powerful leader on his home turf and for Trump to take a victory lap, it would only happen if Kim were fully prepared to divulge details and account for the location of his entire nuclear and missile arsenal.
Capital cities Beijing and Tokyo can be safely eliminated; neither Trump nor Kim wants a third-party interloper. The optics of a US-North Korean summit in Beijing with the Chinese leader a non-participant would be particularly poor, given Beijing was the venue of the moribund Six Party talks.
Still, both Shanghai, given Chinese President Xi Jinping’s desire to keep a close eye on the proceedings, and Vladivostok on the Russian-North Korean border, the site of a get-acquainted meeting between US president Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, are contenders.
Vladivostok would especially suit Kim, a “homebody” who has been out of North Korea only once in the past six years as far as is known, while Trump, the world traveller, would be able to showcase either China or Russia as a security partner whose support is critical to the multilateral diplomacy likely to follow a successful summit. China and Russia could put in a cameo without getting in the way.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arranged a three-year missile moratorium with Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-il, in 2000. Vladivostok would also make sense logistically in any denuclearisation scenario in which Russia could be expected to play a major role. Having decommissioned large segments of the nuclear arsenal in successor Soviet states following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US and Russia could draw on their shared technical expertise vis-à-vis North Korea’s weapons programme.
The one drawback is that the Putin is currently under fire for misdeeds ranging from the lingering conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, as well as alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Geneva, the site of myriad international conferences is also in the running but suffers from the same drawback as Beijing, having hosted two unsuccessful meetings on Korea: the 1954 Geneva Conference on Korea and Vietnam, at which various post-Korean-war unification scenarios were put forward to no avail, and the 1997-1999 Four Party talks with the goal of a peace treaty or peace mechanism.
Berlin has symbolic value as the capital of a unified Germany which overcame cold war division. Still, unification is an inter-Korean problem, not a US-North Korean problem, and would be more appropriate for future inter-Korean summit meetings alternating with those in each other’s capitals.
Finally, Stockholm, the site of several unofficial meetings between government officials, non-governmental organisations and academics, as well as on the recent itinerary of North Korean foreign minister Ri Su-yong, is a possible fallback venue if the two principals cannot agree on an alternative location.
Whichever venue is chosen, just by agreeing to meet, the two leaders have heightened expectations, with both danger and opportunity on the agenda.
John Barry Kotch is a former State Department consultant and covered the Four-Party talks for The Post