If Trump-Kim summit happens, what next? China-US relations may provide a road map
Any path to stabilising relations could follow a diplomatic trail blazed by Washington and Beijing, analysts say
The prospects for a summit meeting next month between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might look a bit shaky, but if it does go off as scheduled, a larger issue remains: how best to build on it and end the decades of hostility between the two nations.
US analysts suggest that a road map already exists – the diplomatic path normalising relations between Washington and Beijing.
That path starts with setting up liaison offices, not an embassy, in Washington and Pyongyang to facilitate “reliable and essential” daily communications, analysts said, perhaps adding a hotline connecting Trump and Kim directly.
It continues by establishing regular working-level meetings between North Korean and American diplomats to keep technical negotiations moving forward, they added.
Christopher Hill, a former assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department, who negotiated with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, and Suzanne DiMaggio, a North Korea expert at the New America Foundation, both said the first step would be those liaison offices.
Hill told the South China Morning Post that they would be “a down payment on the eventual recognition of their state”. DiMaggio said that establishing liaison offices in both capitals would be “a clear path to normalisation”.
On Wednesday, the journey to liaison offices and beyond may have seemed more distant, following North Korea’s threat to cancel the Trump-Kim summit if Washington sought to push Pyongyang into unilaterally giving up its nuclear arsenal.
The White House chose not to respond directly, saying only that it was continuing to plan for the summit. Asked on Wednesday whether it would move forward, Trump said, “We'll have to see.”
When a reporter asked if he would still insist on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, Trump said, “Yes.”
For the moment, the two countries have no formal diplomatic relations, and have been historically hostile since the Korean War, which, technically, has never ended, with only an armistice reached in 1953.
North Korea has pursued nuclear and missile programmes in the decades since then, successfully testing nuclear devices and apparently developing long-range missiles in recent years.
Contending that previous US administrations had failed to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, Trump has maintained a “maximum pressure campaign” of economic sanctions and military deterrence against North Korea while taking advantage of an opening to engage in diplomatic negotiations with Kim.
Last Thursday, Trump said he would meet the 34-year-old Kim on June 12 in Singapore, adding that he hoped for “world peace” through a “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation” on the Korean peninsula.
In exchange, the US is offering Kim security assurances, sanctions relief and economic support that the country is “desperately in need of”, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News on Sunday.
The Trump administration’s diplomatic approach to Pyongyang prompted Korea policy experts to suggest that the two adversaries could follow the same process the US and China used in the 1970s to normalise their relationship.
Henry Kissinger, then-national security adviser to President Richard Nixon, secretly visited Beijing in 1971; Nixon himself went to China in early 1972.
The two sides established liaison offices in Beijing and Washington in 1973 and maintained constant working-level meetings in the following years, leading to a final diplomatic recognition in 1979.
With North Korea, the earliest of those steps have just been taken. Pompeo, then in his last days as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, made an unannounced visit to Pyongyang in April. His second trip, as secretary of state, was to help plan Kim and Trump’s landmark meeting.
Should that take place, establishing liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington would seem the next likely step.
But that move might not be so obvious, as Hill, a former top US diplomat who negotiated with North Korea from 2005 to 2009, found out.
Hill said he told his North Korean counterpart that the US was willing to open liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington.
“I sat down with Kim Kye-gwan and said it is how we normalised with China, ” Hill recalled, referring to the North Korean vice foreign minister. “He just looked at me and said they don’t have an interest in that.”
The rejection, Hill explained, might have been because North Koreans were “very suspicious” of having any American diplomats stationed in Pyongyang. Then-President Bush had called North Korea part of “the Axis of Evil”.
It was also during a time when Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, still ran the country.
Hill said that he hopes “maybe Kim Jong-un will have a different perspective” now on such a proposal.
DiMaggio, who facilitated the first official discussions between the Trump administration and North Korean officials in Oslo in May 2017 and also met her North Korean counterpart before Pompeo’s first secret trip to Pyongyang in April, said that “reliable channels of communication will be essential to any way forward”.
Toward that end, after any Trump-Kim summit, DiMaggio said that regular working meetings between North Korean officials and American diplomats should be scheduled and instituted to keep the process moving forward.
During the intra-Korean summit meeting in late April between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korea agreed on establishing a joint liaison office in Gaeseong, a southern city in North Korea “to facilitate close consultation between the authorities”, according to that summit’s joint declaration.
A direct line connecting Kim to South Korean President Moon Jae-in was installed last month, DiMaggio said, adding that she thought that Trump would be “very eager” to have a similar hotline. “I would not be surprised if that is a development we could hear about soon.”
While acknowledging the value in improving channels of communication, Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department under President Barack Obama, cautioned that the two nations were still “a long way from normalisation, in part because North Korea is a long way from denuclearisation”.
“The liaison offices needed most in North Korea,” Russel, now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, added, should be staffed by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency “to monitor the disabling and dismantlement of [North Korea’s] illicit programmes”.