U.S. President Donald Trump has stunned the world by agreeing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a man he’s ridiculed as “Little Rocket Man” and whose regime only months ago he threatened with “fire and fury.”
The reaction of North Korea watchers ranged from optimism to outright alarm, with some worried that he’s being naive and others hopeful his unconventional approach could finally produce a breakthrough. One thing everyone agreed on: There’s a very, very long way to go.
“What remains to be seen is the game plan, the sequencing, the processes involved as well,” John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at Harvard Kennedy School, told Bloomberg Television. “Until we see more of those details I think it is important to manage expectations here.”
So far, Trump has gotten what he asked for. Kim agreed to discuss giving up his nuclear weapons, suspend missile and nuclear tests, and tolerate routine U.S.-South Korea military drills.
In return, Kim got something his family has sought for years: A summit with a sitting U.S. president. While Trump’s critics say he gave away too much in even agreeing to the meeting, the administration says that lower-level talks have never produced anything of consequence.
There are weeks of work ahead to sort out the logistics of a potential meeting. For one thing, where to have it (the Korea border village of Panmunjom may be the easiest option). When to have it. How long it goes for. And who attends aside from Trump and Kim. The news also raises other questions:
What Might They Actually Talk About?
The conventional view in the U.S. is that the Kim dynasty uses negotiations to win concessions. Trump’s camp insists they’ve learned from past mistakes, and won’t reward the current leader by lowering sanctions unless they can verify he’s reducing his arsenal.
How that will work is unclear. In the past, it’s been a give and take: North Korea has agreed to take certain steps to dismantle its nuclear facilities in return for energy and food aid. This is where talks have fallen apart. Either North Korea accused the U.S. of failing to deliver on its promises, or American officials were unhappy with their ability to verify that Pyongyang was telling the truth.
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“I don’t believe for a minute that the talks, when we get into them, will be easy,” Thomas Hubbard, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea from 2001 to 2004, told Bloomberg TV. “I’ve spent a lot of time in negotiations with the North Koreans. They’re always tough. It’s always complicated. But I think it’s time to start.”
Does Trump Have the Team to Pull This Off?
That’s debatable. While Trump won praise for getting Kim to the table, some analysts are worried he’ll get outmaneuvered — and that could actually increase the risk of war.
Trump still doesn’t have an ambassador in Seoul, his special envoy for North Korea just announced his retirement and the State Department has seen an exodus of career officials since he took office. There’s also the ever-present distraction of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
“The State Department has hemorrhaged Korean linguists and former negotiators,” Douglas H. Paal, an Asia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, wrote in a tweet. The North Koreans “will send people with 30 years of experience.”
Will Kim Actually Give Up His Weapons?
The Kim dynasty has been one of the most durable dictatorships in the world, and its key aim is survival. North Korea has repeatedly said it needs nuclear weapons to prevent an American invasion, citing the fate of regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Having a nuclear arsenal and perpetuating the narrative of the outside world as a threat is also an important part of the Kim family’s hold on power at home.
Optimists — including South Korean President Moon Jae-in — believe that talks can lead in the long term to peaceful reunification of the peninsula, particularly as sanctions leave North Korea isolated and poor. Skeptics don’t think Kim will ever feel safe without a nuclear deterrent, and the best Trump can hope for is a freeze on North Korea’s missile program that will remove the direct threat to the U.S. mainland.
Worlds Apart: The Two Koreas After Seven Decades of Separation
Still, Kim’s fear that Trump may actually pull the trigger on a devastating war may have led to his latest outreach. He may want to dial down tensions until the U.S. gets a new president.
“It seems that as long as President Trump is in the White House, it’s certain the North Koreans will be far more cautious,” said Andrei Lankov, a historian at Kookmin University in Seoul who once studied in Pyongyang. “The fundamentals haven’t changed: the North Koreans believe that at the end of the day for their security, they have to remain nuclear.”