By Michael Covin
It was announced earlier this year that both President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un would agree to meet as the United States and North Korea continue to hash out issues that stem multiple decades between the two countries.
The two sides are currently slated to meet in May and it has been lauded a major step between the two countries especially the threat of nuclear war hanging over not just these two countries but the world.
The New York Times in lieu of this upcoming event outlined seven aspects to consider ahead of this meeting and future relations between the two countries at a time when the two leaders have been less than civil with each other in a less than diplomatic manner.
1) In the short-term this reduces the risk of war
2) There could be misguided expectations that lead to trouble with talks
3) There are disagreements on both sides
4) The United States is entering this with a wrong approach
5) There is much uncertainty within and surrounding the State Department
6) There is a great deal related to this meeting and negotiations that could turn on the President’s demeanor
7) The end result of this meeting might not provide a result most would hope for
There are certainly many other areas that are worth bringing up from injustices that American citizens have suffered during their time in North Korea and the missile testing maneuvers taking place under Kim Jung-un’s leadership.
There are also the aspects of war that many in the U.S. are much fatigued from with conflicts in the Middle East the country is currently involved in and growing conflicts the country could become more involved in.
Reducing the risk of war is possibly the most important area and a major reason for these talks as both country’s leaders have provided digital threats to the other. Reducing the risk of war is a step in the right direction and a starting point for both countries and its leaders.
It echoes a bit of what took place 30 years ago in the 1980s during the conversations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The threats and concerns of that time can provide a backdrop for the importance of such conversations today between the U.S. and North Korea.
Leading up to these talks there is much uncertainty including whether the meeting will take place and if anything will come from it. Conceding to a meeting has been more embraced by the U.S. and some of the gamesmanship between the two countries was on display during the Winter Olympics with whom the two countries sent to the opening and closing ceremonies.
What both sides will ultimately agree to is open for much conversation and Trump has focused much attention on denuclearization as a primary starting and ending point of any conversations at a minimum with more demands like to emerge.
The lack of mutual terms is part of the third area highlighted and connected greatly to this area. Disagreements over terms and what the other is actually looking for could cause lack of mutual agreements between the two country’s leaders.
The fact that there is a lack of lower levels talks and communication before the two leaders meet and talk raises red flags in terms of not having those initial negotiations to build on.
Those negotiations can lead to some quick positive outcomes and lessen the likelihood of heightened tensions that could come from world leaders talking over negotiations that are not as closely monitored as lower level officials working through negotiations.
Robert E. Kelly, a professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, tweeted about this matter and process: “There would be a series of concessions and counter-concessions building trust and credibility over time (likely years) eventually rising to a serious discussion of denuclearization. Trump, always the publicity-seeker, is just diving right in, which is why the Korea analyst community is responding so hesitantly.”
On the Trump-Kim Summit: Summits normally come at the end of a long series of negotiations at lower levels in which lots of devils in the details r hammered out. Trump, always the publicity-seeker, is just diving right in, which is why the Korea analyst community is responding /1
— Robert E Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) March 9, 2018
Victor Cha, an expert on North Korea, also wrote his concerns in a New York Times op-ed recently: “This dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy.”
As important as the negotiations handled by the two world leaders are and how they will largely shape the outcome of this impending meeting, the state of the State Department further adds to the unpredictability and uncertainty of these talks.
The staff at the State Department including staff related to North Korea has been understaffed to the point that there is no American Ambassador to South Korea or an Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
Individuals have been retiring and Rex Tillerson was relieved of his duties as Secretary of State and Mike Pompeo is in the middle of a heated appointment process to replace Tillerson. Even before Tillerson was fired, the president and him did not always see eye to eye on North Korea and further complicated the State Department’s role with the White House with potential negotiations and improving the current situation.
That is why after the first area addressed regarding the short-term goal of reducing the risk of war, the president’s personality could be the next biggest area of focus as the president has tweeted numerous times and used an address at the United Nations General Assembly to call the North Korea leader “rocket man.”
Kim’s demeanor is not any less calm than Trump’s and could further inflame the President’s demeanor and personality.
The president has had a mixed relationship with members of his own party and has clashed often with members of the Democratic Party while also at times being willing to embrace a policy or idea they present almost to spite his own party. That style can serve as a bit of a starting point for how one might imagine how his personality could impact these types of negotiations.
That leads to the last area mentioned and the potential for the president to weaken the U.S.’s position and provide Kim Jong-un with more from this meeting than what the U.S. leaves with in terms of a deal that is made.
This concern was highlighted by Jeffrey Lewis, a Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, by a tweet: “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.”
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
This aim is something North Korea has worked towards and with every test they execute is further evidence of that and their hope to expand their global influence and role.
There is still time ahead of the meeting and there are still intangible ahead largely highlighted by the two world leaders’ short tempers and the lack of a strong central plan and the necessary staff to assist the U.S. during this poignant time.
The Cold War provided many lessons over multiple leadership teams spanning decades. There has been a similar building up to this meeting and a similar eerie concern in the background.