Developments on the Korean peninsula have been dizzying, from talk of war, to hints of diplomacy, to symbolic gestures and now this: the acceptance by U.S. President Donald Trump of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leader Kim Jong-un’s invitation to direct talks. Coming on the heels of the announcement of the first inter-Korean summit in a decade and of Pyongyang’s decision to freeze nuclear and missile tests, this represents an important opening for diplomacy that should not be wasted.
At a minimum, prospects of a meeting (the first between an incumbent U.S. leader and his North Korean counterpart) can lower tensions on the Korean peninsula and, critically, mitigate risks – for the time being at least – of the U.S. and North Korea sliding toward a catastrophic confrontation. In the best-case scenario, it might pave the way for a longer-term solution to the decades-old Korean crisis. But optimism and hope must be tempered by caution: serious preparation by all sides will be required ahead of talks to calibrate and align expectations, and to prevent a failed summit that could quickly take the crisis back to the brink.
The 8 March announcement follows the latest round of talks between North and South Korean officials, including a dinner hosted by Kim, during which he expressed willingness to meet the U.S. president and in return freeze tests of nuclear and ballistic missiles, while turning a blind eye to U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong, who led the South Korean delegation to those talks, conveyed Kim’s message to U.S. officials, including President Trump himself.
The North Koreans’ willingness to meet a U.S. president is not new; that long has been their goal. Nor is their willingness to put denuclearisation on the table novel; part of the regime’s mantra for years has been that denuclearisation is tied to an end to U.S. threats, a standard as hard to define as it will be to meet.
Rather, what is new is that the U.S. president accepted the invitation, and that North Korea appears willing to take several steps to make this happen. The announcement was all the more unusual insofar as it appears to have been preceded by little direct diplomacy between U.S. and North Korean officials – indeed, by little preparation within the U.S. administration itself, where most officials seem to have been taken by surprise.
Now, urgent tasks are at hand to maximise chances that this high-stakes summit is successful. To begin, South Korea and the U.S. should work as closely as possible, in consultation with China, Japan and Russia, to develop a realistic agenda for engagement between Washington and Pyongyang. For the U.S., a first step will be to appoint a credible team to prepare for the meeting, drawing on the rich pool of expertise in the country on both sides of the partisan divide.
Initial goals would have to be modest: reestablishing U.S.-North Korean contacts, building relations between officials on both sides, and ensuring that expectations as to the desired result of the summit meeting are understood and shared in advance. That will be no easy feat: the U.S. is asking for concrete steps toward total denuclearisation; North Korea conditions this on steps to guarantee its security, ultimately including the withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella from South Korea. Adjusting and aligning those expectations ahead of the meeting will be essential to its success.
Concrete gestures of goodwill in advance of the talks also would help. Pyongyang could actively facilitate the search for remains of U.S. Korean War dead on its territory. Washington and Seoul could stress that any forthcoming joint military exercises are solely designed to ensure force readiness, and they should avoid provocative drills such as those simulating invasions of North Korea or the killing of DPRK leaders. Restarting the reunion of families separated by the Korean War – which has been on hold since October 2015 – is not only the right thing to do but would generate positive sentiment toward the dialogue process among South Koreans.
In 2000, when then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung decided to visit Pyongyang, several of his advisers cautioned against it, saying that insufficient practical progress had been made elsewhere, and that the pageantry of a summit ought to wait. Today’s situation, while different in important respects, shares similarities. One risk is that Kim will offer little in return for the meeting, while portraying it as evidence that his nuclear weapons programme has forced the U.S. to treat him as an equal. There is another risk: that Trump will expect too much from the meeting, notably steps toward immediate denuclearisation, which will set the stage for a return to sabre-rattling and brinkmanship when that goal is unmet.
Those dangers are far outweighed by the potential benefits of U.S.-North Korean dialogue. But they mean that groundwork for the talks will be critical. Undoing decades of hostility and complex strategic dilemmas takes time. Ambition and hope need to come hand in hand with patience and realism.
(c) 2018 International Crisis Group