Asia: North Korea
US President Trump accepts North Korea's offer to meet for face-to-face negotiations
In March 2018, following negotiations between the two Koreas, the president of the United States agreed to meet with the leader of North Korea. The invitation from North Korea was delivered by a South Korean delegation, which noted that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: was eager to meet United States President Donald Trump "as soon as possible." For his part, Trump immediately accepted the invitation and would meet the North KOrean leader by May 2018 "to achieve permanent denuclearization.”
The development came in the aftermath of the February 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, which involved the North Koreans sending a delegation, which marched in the Opening Ceremony with South Korea. This move appeared to have opened the door to re-engagement between the two Koreas, paving the way for bilateral talks and a cooling of hostilities.
With a drive towards rapprochement, South Korea was keen to stay on the diplomatic track. As February 2018 came to a close, South Korea announced that North Korea was willing to hold talks with the United States. The announcement occurred after a meeting between North Korean General Kim Yong-chol and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics.
According to President Moon's office, North Korea was "very willing" to engage in dialogue with the United States. President Moon's office emphasized the fact that North Korea had "agreed that inter-Korea talks and North-U.S. relations should improve together."
The United States Department of State reacted at the time by stressing that the goal of "any dialogue" must be nuclear disarmament. The official statement by the State Department read as follows: "We will see if Pyongyang's message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps."
It was unclear if North Korea would assent to these terms of engagement with the United States. Of significance was the fact that the offer of dialogue came just after the Trump administration in the United States said it was imposing a slate of harsh sanctions against Pyongyang. These new measures would target shipping vessels and shipping companies, which were believed to be used by North Korea to carry out prohibited trading activities.
At the time, Pyongyang had reacted to the fresh sanctions angrily by characterizing the move by Washington D.C. as "an act of war."
Nevertheless, the North Korea foreign ministry appeared to give a symbolic nod to the South as it praised cooperation between the two Koreas during the Olympics. That praise for South Korea suggested that the North was keen to heal the breach with the South. But North Korea made clear that the United States presented an obstacle to improved inter-Korean relations saying that the United States "brought the threat of war to the Korean peninsula with large-scale new sanctions."
At the start of March 2018, following continued discussions between the two Koreas, a breakthrough of sorts appeared to have emerged. North Korea indicated that it was willing to place denuclearization on the table in exchange for security guarantees. At issue was a high level meeting between South Korean officials and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, in Pyongyang on March 5, 2018. According to the South Koreans, the North was also willing to entertain talks with the United States as well as a pause on weapons testing.
While these overtures presented a marked shift in tone from the belligerent rhetoric and measures carried out by the North in recent times, it was unclear if these suggestions would translate into meaningful developments. Previous agreements with the North that involved ceasing its nuclear ambitions ended every time with Pyongyang failing to meet its international obligations.
That being said, it was clear that a diplomatic fulcrum was in place to facilitate negotiations at a forthcoming summit on the border between North Korea and South Korea in April 2018. In the aforementioned truce village of Panmunjom, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, was scheduled to meet with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in.
Meanwhile, South Korea was making clear that even as it pursued diplomatic avenues with North Korea, it would nonetheless continue to strengthen its military defenses. South Korean President Moon signaled a tone of cautious hope as he said in remarks to students at the Korean Military Academy: "We have started our journey for peace and prosperity with confidence that we can build denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula with our own strength. But at the same time, we have to do our best to build countermeasure capability for North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles."
On March 8, 2018, however, the entire landscape shifted when it was announced that United States President Donald Trump had agreed to meet with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.
According to reports, Chung Eui-yong, the national security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, conveyed the invitation to President Trump, who wasted not time in accepting it.
In fact, a South Korean delegation was in Washington D.C. on March 8, 2018 to meet with United States officials on defense and security matters. During that meeting, the South Koreans delivered the diplomatic overture from the North. After being notified of the invitation, President Trump entered the White House Press Briefing to tell members of the press that an important announcement on North Korea was in the offing.
A few hours later came the news -- via the South Koreans. Speaking from a driveway in front of the White House West Wing, South Korean envoy Chung said that the United States president had agreed to a face-to-face meeting with the North KOrean leader. Moreover, that meeting was to take place only two months later in May 2018.
South Korean envoy Chung said of Kim Jong-un: “He expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible." Trump, according to Chung, agreed to “meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.” Chung also noted that the North Korean leader understood that joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea would go on, as scheduled, in late March 2018.
The White House confirmed President Trump’s plan to meet Kim Jong-un via Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Via his favorite social media outlet, Twitter, Trump hailed the impending meeting with the North Korean leader, tweeting that Kim Jong-un had “talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze.” He added, “Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time." He also tweeted: “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”
It should be noted that no sitting American president has ever met a North Korean leader before. At the same time, every sitting American president has had the oppotunity to meet with the North Korean leader for face to face negotiations, if so desired. Former President Barack Obama, while he was a candidate, said that he was open to the notion. However, once he became president, that route was never pursued as the realities of engagement with a tyrannical dictator were made vividly clear.
For his part, Trump was jumping at the chance to do what no predecessor had done, emphasizing that he was not interested in lengthy negotiation with the North Koreans, which could result in grand concessions for the North Koreans but no end to their nuclear program. While that stated goal could only be regarded as admirable, the fact of the matter was that his immediate acceptance of the invitation from the North Koreans to meet for face-to-face talks was -- by its very nature -- an extraordinarily grand concession.
The reality was that any high level talks between the leaders of arch-enemy states without diplomatic relations would normally entail a long period of preparation. Indeed, an apex moment would typically come at a future moment, down the road, between diplomatic representatives, such as ambassadors, and behind closed doors.
Sorting out that process would take time and be enormously challenging, given that the Trump administration was yet to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, following its decision not to pursue the appointment of seasoned diplomat, Victor Cha. As well, the United States Department of State’s chief North Korea negotiator, Joseph Yun, was resigning from foreign service.
But Kim Jong-un's offer to Donald Trump, followed by Trump's immediate -- and very public -- acceptance quite clearly upended the normative framework.
For South Korea, the prospect of re-engagement and dialogue with North Korea, and involving its closest ally, the United States, was generating relief. It was also a political win for South Korean President Moon, who had been elected partly on the basis of his campaign promise to end the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula via dialogue and diplomacy.
For its part, the Trump administration was lauding the impending meeting with North Korea, touting it as a historic development, resulting from its maximum pressure policy that included sanctions and threats of military force.
The administration received praise from Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security program at the Center for a New American Security, who noted that the development came as a result of Trump's hardline tactics.
Some observers, however, wondered if the dipomacy was ensuing because of Trump's hardline military threats or despite it.
Critics of the administration noted that while dialogue was preferable to possibly catastrophic military action, the United States president granting a face-to-face meeting to the tyrannical and homicidal dictator of North Korea essentially legitimized Kim Jong-un.
Some critics went further, accusing the Trump administration of granting concessions to North Korea before the process of negotiations had even begun. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms-control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, declared: “White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has said that the United States has not made any concessions, but let’s be clear: THE MEETING IS THE CONCESSION."
Tom Nichols, a professor of national security at the Naval War College, struck a similar note, observing that the meeting should have been a reward for progress on denuclearization, and should have only come after a long process of careful preparation. He said, "A summit should be a reward for months, even years, of careful work and actual progress. Meetings at lower levels should progress to more senior principals, and then to the heads of state."
Still others wondered if the meeting could be a trap of sorts, while there was some suggestion that the North Koreans would leverage diplomacy to its benefit while not actually denuclearizing -- a pattern that the world has seen before from North Korea.
The fact of the matter was that North Korea had expended expensive resources on its nuclear program and to carry out its missile tests, which were frequent over the course of the last year. Coupled with harsh sanctions, North Korea was very likely being compelled to return to the negotiating table for economic reasons. As noted by CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, via Twitter: “Never before have we had the North Korean in a position where their economy was at such risk and where their leadership was under such pressure that they would begin conversations on the terms that Kim Jong Un has conceded to.”
But the typical North Korean pattern to date has been one where it occasionally engages in the exercise of diplomacy and makes a theater of denuclearization for economic gain. The North Koreans normally follow this phase by violating international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions in a renewed pursuit of a nuclear program. It was to be seen if this new diplomatic effort would end any differently.
In a worst case scenario, a botched negotiations process could leave the East Asia -- and indeed, the world -- in peril. President Trump's former choice for ambassador to Soutk Korea issued the following warning: “Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have 'run out of road' on North Korea.”
Note that by March 9, 2018, presumably in the face of the aforementioned criticism, the Trump administration modified its stance somewhat, with Press Secretary Sanders saying that the president had agreed to meet on the basis of certain conditions, specifying “on the basis that we see concrete and verifiable steps.”
-- March 12, 2018
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief