President Donald Trump agreed Thursday to meet in person with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – the first for a sitting president – setting off speculation about exactly what it could achieve. The goal is to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula, but some wonder if President Trump is giving up too much by agreeing to meet.
World leaders in the region were optimistic about the meeting, which is planned for May:
South Korean President Moon Jae-in
Moon called the planned meeting a “historic milestone” and “miraculous opportunity” to resolve the nuclear development issue. “I would like to express my profound gratitude to the two leaders who made a difficult decision reflecting their courage and wisdom,” he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping
Xi told President Trump by telephone on Friday that he was glad at the effort to resolve the nuclear issue politically and that he hopes both sides can control their differences and promote economic cooperation, reported China’s state broadcaster CCTV.
Some analysts were cautious and downright skeptical:
Analyst Victor Cha
The meeting raises more questions than it answers, and a positive outcome is far from guaranteed, Cha, a senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times.
“While the unpredictability of a meeting between these two unconventional leaders provides unique opportunities to end the decades-old conflict, its failure could also push the two countries to the brink of war,” he wrote.
While the South Koreans said Kim appears willing to offer a missile-test freeze and non-response to American military exercises, what Trump might offer as bargaining chips is less clear, Cha continued. The concessions might include incremental energy and economic assistance, lifting of sanctions, and perhaps even diplomatic normalization of relations, he wrote.
Analyst David Rothkopf
Kim wins big from the meeting even if it doesn’t happen, while Trump takes the risk of North Korea giving “little in return but frustration and broken promises,” said Rothkopf, an author, professor and founder and CEO of The Rothkopf Group. “I would be very, very surprised if North Korea actually gives up the nukes and missiles it has.”
“To make it work requires a detailed understanding on our side of what we want, which means a high functioning policy process, it requires complex multi-layered diplomacy (with both Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, within the U.N.), it requires attention to detail and respect for process, it requires patience and enforcement,” Rothkopf said in an email. “Unfortunately, this administration has shown zero capacity in any of those areas and the gutting of the State Department and the turmoil in the White House does not bode well for our capacity in any of these areas going forward.”
Analyst Jeffrey Lewis
Lewis, an arms control advocate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, agreed that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons:
PS: To be clear — we need to talk to North Korea. But Kim is not inviting Trump so that he can surrender North Korea's weapons. Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that his investment in nuclear and missile capabilities has forced the United States to treat him as an equal.
— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) March 9, 2018
Analyst Suzanne DiMaggio
DiMaggio, a New America senior fellow, commented on Twitter that normally such a high-level meeting would come after “some concrete deliverables were in hand”:
Me to @RachelNPR on the proposed Trump-Kim summit: One way to look at it is before the North Koreans have delivered anything concrete, Trump has already handed them a major concession – an unprecedented meeting w/the leader of the free world. But… https://t.co/jl20Fmc1nU
— Suzanne DiMaggio (@suzannedimaggio) March 9, 2018
Vice President Mike Pence said the invitation showed U.S. pressure was working:
Pence tweeted a statement that “North Korea’s desire to meet to discuss denuclearization – while suspending all ballistic missile and nuclear testing – is evidence that President Trump’s strategy to isolate the Kim regime is working.”
He said the United States has made “zero concessions” and has increased pressure on the regime, including sanctions that remain in place.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed the element of surprise:
Speaking to reporters in Djibouti during a five-African-nation tour, Tillerson said the meeting itself wasn’t a surprise – “This is something that [President Trump has] had on his mind for quite some time.”
What was surprising was Kim’s attitude about talks, Tillerson said. “I think this was the most forward-leaning report that we’ve have had in terms of Kim Jong-un’s, not just willingness, but his strong desire for talks.” (Read more of his comments at the press briefing.)
Analyst Scott Snyder considered the timing of Kim’s invitation:
“For Kim, the prospect of an early summit with Trump provides the best prospect of removing international sanctions pressure while giving Kim room for maneuver to possibly keep his nuclear deterrent in place,” Snyder wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations. “Moreover, a prospective nuclear deal with Trump provides Kim with an opportunity to secure external symbols of regime legitimacy without having to address North Korea’s atrocious human rights record. (After all, only Trump can offer a Trump-branded hotel in Pyongyang, payable in fissile material.)”
Analyst Michael Pillsbury weighed in on the meeting place:
“The choice of where to meet raises the question of whether Beijing should be the host and try to restart the six-party talks as well as involve China in the enforcement of any agreement,” he wrote in an email. “At Mara-a-Lago in April last year, Trump and Xi set up a four-channel mechanism with the Chinese but still in effect. This kind of diplomatic mechanism should be set up with North Korea especially if Beijing serves as a host.”
Pillsbury, director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute, said another option is the neutral country of Switzerland where Kim went to school, though the North Koreans may prefer their home turf of Pyongyang, where they invited President Bill Clinton in 2000. That visit never materialized.