Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un poses risks
The announcement that Donald Trump had agreed to a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un caught everyone by surprise. It was classic Trump: Act first, think later.
His decision was driven by Trump’s impulsive personality, a reality TV view of the world, an obsession with doing the opposite of past presidents and the conviction that he is an unmatched deal-maker.
This was not part of a long-term strategy. The U.S. is now scrambling to find officials in the depleted State Department with the expertise to prepare for the summit.
By contrast, the summit is the culmination of a long-term strategy by Kim to develop his nuclear arsenal, withstand sanctions and come to the negotiating table with a strong hand.
In agreeing to the meeting, Trump upended long-standing U.S. policy. The U.S. has insisted for years it would not talk to North Korea unless North Korea made a commitment to irreversible denuclearization.
In this case, all North Korea has agreed to is what it has proposed to past administrations: A vague willingness to discuss denuclearization in return for an undefined security guarantee for North Korea.
The longtime U.S. position was reiterated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just hours before the announcement of the summit when he said that it would be premature to consider talks in the absence of such a verifiable commitment.
U.S. diplomatic practice is that before any negotiations, there are exhaustive inter-agency consultations followed by development of a detailed negotiating plan.
In the case of the Iran agreement, the U.S. negotiating document ran to 100 pages. In this case, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to develop a detailed negotiating position prior to the summit, let alone get Trump to follow it.
Preliminary diplomatic negotiations are always held at an officials’ level, with presidential involvement kept in reserve as a bargaining chip. Trump has given away a major card without receiving anything in return. Preliminary discussions lessen the risk of failure of talks at the highest level.
Trump has provided North Korea, and Kim personally, with a significant diplomatic triumph and political legitimacy, as North Korea has long sought such a meeting, in vain.
Members of Trump’s administration have realized the risks of his impulsive decision However, Trump has undermined their efforts insisting the meeting will go ahead.
There are a variety of possible outcomes for the summit:
The “do no harm” scenario is that the two sides have an amicable photo-op and agree on further discussions at the level of officials.
This could be accompanied by an agreement to continue the suspension of tests, perhaps in return for the easing of sanctions.
Seeking a deal, ignoring the advice of his experts and believing he had received some sort of denuclearization commitment from Kim, Trump could entertain North Korean demands for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. This is an unlikely result and one that would alarm South Korea, Japan and U.S. experts.
Kim could make a general commitment to denuclearize. Huge concessions by the U.S. would be demanded, including withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula, renunciation of the mutual defence treaty with South Korea, complete lifting of sanctions, economic assistance and the conclusion of a peace treaty.
The meeting could flounder if Trump insists denuclearization is the only purpose of the talks and refuses to entertain lifting of sanctions or security guarantees for North Korea.
The worst-case scenario would be a meeting marked by insults, threats and then military preparations.
The issue is whether the U.S. is prepared for talks and whether Trump, unversed in the facts and subtleties of the Korean Peninsula, should be the one to conduct such talks.
The answer is no. James Trottier is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat, including in North and South Korea. email@example.com