Q&A: What Trump Could Expect from a Meeting with North Korea

A South Korean soldier walks past a television screen showing pictures of US President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on March 9, 2018. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

A South Korean soldier walks past a television screen showing pictures of US President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on March 9, 2018. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

March 14, 2018

When President Donald Trump announced he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, it sent his own staff and foreign leaders scrambling.

It was an unprecedented decision. The anticipated talks will be the first ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader — since coming to power, Kim has not met with the leader of any nation. He is also expected to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, ahead of the tentative U.S.-North Korea summit in May.

The move comes after months of heated rhetoric from Trump, who threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” if it threatened the U.S., and described negotiations with its leader, who he called “Little Rocket Man,” as a waste of time. On Tuesday, Trump also fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who during his tenure had been supportive of talks with North Korea.

Trump, who reportedly made the decision unilaterally, has suggested he hopes the talks will lead to North Korea surrendering its nuclear weapons. “Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze,” he tweeted last Thursday, adding, “Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time… sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached.”

The following day, the president tweeted: “The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the World.”

But there is much still to be decided, including where, when — or even whether the meeting will take place. The North Koreans still haven’t responded to Trump’s announcement, and Trump’s new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has been much more hawkish on North Korea than his predecessor.

To better understand what’s ahead, FRONTLINE spoke with Dr. Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, about what to expect from a possible meeting —­ and what each nation stands to gain from these talks.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

 What was your reaction when you first heard about President Trump’s willingness to meet Kim Jong-Un?

I was as surprised as everybody else that President Trump would so immediately accept a summit offer or reported summit offer from Kim Jong-un. Usually, summits between these types of leaders take place after all the legwork has been done by the diplomats and other senior officials to lay the foundation for a summit. Of course, I was also surprised given all the fiery rhetoric from over the fall and the winter as well as the administration’s focus on maximum pressure, especially on sanctions and possible military options.

That said, President Trump had set forth a couple of statements that indicated that he would be willing to talk… so there were a couple of smaller signals that Trump was looking in this direction.

What does each side hope to accomplish?

 I think Kim Jong-un himself is probably surprised by the fact that president Trump accepted this offer. I just want to remind people that this offer, and Kim’s reported promises on nuclear weapons and a freeze on missile and nuclear testing, is coming through secondhand from the South Korean delegation. And so, we might see Kim looking for the prestige aspect, the photo opportunity, the optics that he is on an equal footing with the U.S. president. And, that he can start to or try to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea.

For the U.S. president, I think we have to manage expectations. The U.S. has been pretty strongly advocating for denuclearization, which is complete, verifiable and irreversible, and that’s a high bar and president Trump should not go into this meeting, if it happens, thinking that he can, just by meeting with Kim this one time, achieve denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

If anything, this would be just the start of a process.

This week, we found out that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired and will be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Will that complicate these talks?

Rumors about Tillerson leaving, other people coming and going have been rife in this administration for over a year. But, Tillerson had been so discredited by this administration that I’m not sure he would have been a credible interlocutor for North Korea. And Pompeo, from what I see, is a trusted person by the White House. And if he were to take the lead on any follow-up negotiations or lead-up negotiations, then I think the North Koreans will probably be more confident that Pompeo has the blessing of the White House. But, that said, it’s still not clear to me who’s going to be taking the lead.

How did we, in a matter of months, go from the President referring to Kim Jong-un as “little rocket man,” and vowing to “totally destroy,” North Korea — to being open to talks?

The North Korea policy is maximum pressure and engagement. But, the administration had been heavily weighing the pressure part [through economic sanctions and the possibility of military options]. The fact is, I don’t know that we have really thought through the engagement part. Also, if the reports are correct — that president Trump decided this impulsively on the spot, surprising everyone around him including his own staff — that probably shows Kim Jong-un that on North Korea, it’s really just the president that matters, since he’s the one who makes the decisions.

It could be problematic because denuclearization is going to be a long slog, and you’re going to need processes and all of the bureaucracies involved in making it happen. And I think it’s always problematic when you have put one person as policy, or personalizing of that policy, because if things go badly between Kim and Trump, there’s nowhere to go but down.

North Korea has been more open in recent months to engaging internationally — from their delegation to the Olympics to these talks. Do you think this could hint at their possible willingness to denuclearize?

I’m highly skeptical that they are going to denuclearize. It costs the North Koreans nothing to send their diplomats abroad and to tell them to start drumming up support for engagement. So far, they haven’t given up anything.

It would be really hard for Kim Jong-un to give up what he has been handed down from his grandfather and father, give up his personal ownership of the nuclear weapons, and so I see very little indications or evidence that he is actually willing to come to credible and meaningful discussions on giving up the nuclear weapons program. And, the regime has said since he came to power that its nuclear weapons are not for bargaining, that they’re not bargaining chips, and that the U.S. has to accept that fact.

What do you expect them to discuss in these talks, if denuclearization isn’t a possibility?

North Korea gets a lot just by having the fact of these talks, and we don’t get very much. Although, I would have to say that it does show the region that we are committed to a peaceful resolution and that we want to talk to North Korea and engage with North Korea on the nuclear weapons.

[…]I think the goals should be pretty limited for this meeting. [B]ut I think the president should try to get something… an agreement from Pyongyang that they agree on principle to work towards a peaceful resolution on its nuclear weapons program. Something that the diplomats and the bureaucratic apparatus can work to accomplish that will move us closer to denuclearization.

Nothing about North Korea is promising. But, it has to be all hands-on-deck if this Kim-Trump meeting happens. I think there are very few people who don’t support diplomatic ways of resolving this issue. So, I think we have to be invested in making sure that we take this opportunity and this opening to try to get something going with North Korea. I think this is far better than what we had before with “fire and fury,” when people actually thought there might be a military conflict that could break out.


Nicole Einbinder

Nicole Einbinder, Former Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships



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