Kim-Trump Summit raises the stakes

The meeting between the leaders of North Korea and the United States will not achieve much, but accelerates the process to either a peace deal or war

US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump

In the early hours of the morning in Malta on Friday, 9th March, South Korea’s national security adviser Chung Eui-Yong announced that following a meeting he had with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and having briefed US President Donald Trump on the discussions held during the meeting, Trump agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un face to face.

The announcement took away the collective breath of foreign policy watchers the world over. In the past, the US saw the visit of a head of state as a gift to only be granted after negotiations which lead to the North’s denuclearisation. In this case, Trump is betting that his negotiating skills will allow him to strong-arm Kim Jong Un into a deal. It will be more difficult than he thinks.

Mr. Trump’s decision is a bold departure from traditional American foreign policy, and has the potential of finally pushing Pyongyang towards denuclearisation. If the meeting were to lead to a lasting peace treaty between the two Koreas, and denuclearisation on the peninsula, Trump would have succeeded where ten Presidents before him have failed – to solve the Korean conflict once and for all.

However, by opting to go for high-level talks between national leaders prior to engaging in lower level discussions, there is good reason to be uneasy.

Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump put considerable value on how they are perceived by their people. Both react disproportionately when their ego is threatened. Neither leader can afford to appear weak in these talks. It is only in the period between now, and the meeting itself (meant to be held by the end of May) in which both sides stand to gain. Washington and Pyongyang’s respective positions appear to be intractable.

The US wants full North Korean denuclearization and halting any provocative actions towards itself or its allies. North Korea is looking for the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, ‘peaceful reunification’ with the South, and the retention of its nuclear deterrent.

The American President prides himself on being a skilled negotiator, and in the business world, that may well have been the case. But business skills do not translate into foreign policy acumen. When a leader enters high-stakes negotiations such as these, they should be aware of the implications of the success or failures of talks.

They should be aware of the impact on both themselves and their regional allies from a security, political and economic perspective. Mr. Trump’s penchant for bravado means that, unfortunately, he does not know what he does not know – but he acts as though he does. This is where the experience and tact of experienced, moderate advisors such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (a man who has fought and commanded thousands of troops in active combat) comes in handy, and that of more hawkish ones like National Security Advisor-designate John Bolton (who never fought in combat before) should mean less.

North Korea has spent years pursuing nuclear weapons to deter potential aggressors. In recent months, it successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, with the range to strike the continental United States. It must still prove it can successfully place a miniaturised nuclear warhead in the missile cone, but given its progress, one probably should not bet against Kim Jong Un’s regime in getting the capability.

With Pyongyang having spent so much time and money on nuclear weapon development (at the cost of its people’s well-being), what reason would it have to give up its deterrent so soon after having developed its most ranged weapon? Kim Jong Un will either want maximum concessions from the US, including seeing US troops leave in return for denuclearisation and the removal of US security guarantees for South Korea – or he will simply refuse to even consider giving the weapons up at all. Both are plausible scenarios. Economic assistance has not proven to be a strong motivator in the past, and there is little to reason to believe that North Korea is on the brink of collapse now.

Something else to keep an eye on in the run up to the Kim-Trump meeting in May would be any overtures made by Pyongyang towards South Korea. The Winter Olympics in Seoul brought the two Koreas closer together – but this is due at least as much to Kim Jong Un’s desire to drive a wedge between South Korean and American interests as it was due to Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. South Korea’s current leadership is less interested in denuclearisation, and more interested in fostering closer ties with their northern counterparts. This is a weakness in the Seoul-Washington partnership that Kim may choose to exploit.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is unlikely to sit back and watch whilst his American ally takes unilateral decisions that impact his country’s security without his say or consent. There have been rumblings that PM Abe might look to meet Kim Jong Un shortly after the Trump meeting, and if nothing else, it provides Japan with the opportunity to evaluate Pyongyang’s long-term goals. But it will also provide Kim Jong Un an opportunity to negotiate with his three main regional rivals (South Korea, US, Japan) individually, as their united front seems to be weaker than expected.

The stakes for the Kim-Trump Summit are incredibly high. By going straight to high-level talks as opposed to a gradual build-up from the middle and upper range of diplomatic negotiations means that there will be little of substance which can be achieved in one meeting. What it can achieve is some element of good will - although both are guilty of holding up their end of bargains in the past. The unfortunate truth is that the consequences of a hostile or unsuccessful meeting will put the two sides on a collision course which would be difficult to reverse.

It is a high-stakes meeting which holds true to Mr. Trump’s unconventional approach to policy making. The chances of a miscalculation are higher than that of a concrete breakthrough. If he is successful in achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula, he will be remembered as a daring maverick. If his approach leads to a destructive conflict, an out-of-touch real estate mogul who lacked the competence and temperament to lead a superpower. By the end of this year, the situation on the Korean peninsula will have either settled onto a path of peace or war – and it will be Mr. Trump’s responsibility to decide.

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