By Sue Mi Terry & Lisa Collins —
On March 8, a South Korean delegation led by the director of national security, Chung Eui-yong, met with officials at the White House. After their meeting, President Trump declared that the South Koreans would make “a major announcement” the same evening at a White House press conference. In a pre-prepared statement, Chung announced that he was carrying a proposal for a U.S.-DPRK summit from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. According to Chung’s statement, President Trump accepted the proposal and was prepared to hold the summit by May. The North Koreans also reportedly agreed to “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and to refrain from ballistic missile and nuclear weapons testing. The North Korean move is surprising, but critical questions remain.
Q1: Where will the Trump-Kim summit take place?
A1: This is yet to be determined. High-level U.S. officials will likely counsel President Trump not to travel to Pyongyang. While former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton visited North Korea after their terms ended, a sitting U.S. president has never visited that country. The primary reason is “optics”—if the world’s most powerful leader visits Pyongyang, this may internally and externally bolster the legitimacy and power of the North Korean leader. Past visits of world leaders to Pyongyang have served as occasions for the regime to trumpet the superiority of the North Korean system and its leadership. Given the risks involved, Kim Jong-un is also unlikely to travel to the United States for a summit. A meeting in South Korea or a neutral third-party country such as Switzerland, Sweden, or Singapore may a reasonable compromise. Kim Jong-un has already agreed to hold the inter-Korean summit in April in a South Korean location along the demilitarized zone. It may not be unthinkable that South Korea could be the host for a U.S.–North Korea summit. Likewise, Trump in another surprising move could also decide to travel to Pyongyang despite the many obvious hazards.
Q2: Why a summit in May? Why now?
A2: There are number of factors that have probably led to North Korea’s diplomatic offensive and summit proposal. First, sanctions and pressure are working. There are reports about a significant decrease in China–North Korea trade and continuing depletion of North Korean foreign currency reserves. Countries have cut off diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea. To adapt to sanctions, the country is also developing complicated coping mechanisms such as ship-to-ship transfers of fuel, “laundering” of coal shipments, and raiding of bitcoin exchanges.
Second, the North Koreans may be genuinely spooked by a “bloody nose” strike option discussed in the United States. The North Koreans have dealt with “predictable” U.S. leaders for over 70 years, and their brinkmanship strategies for diplomacy and weapons development have reflected that. Donald Trump is a different type of U.S. leader—one who is not predictable. North Koreans may be in their own way trying to avoid war on the Korean peninsula. Third, there exists a small window of time for dialogue to take root between the U.S.-ROK military exercises set to take place in the spring and fall of 2018. Building on the momentum from an inter-Korean summit in April, North Koreans may see May and June as the only opportunity to get direct talks between the United States and DPRK started before the constraints of military exercises kick in.
Q3: What is on the negotiating table? What will be outcome of the summit?
A3: It is too early to tell and depends on what the goals are for the meeting. There have been no working-level negotiations between the United States and DPRK prior to this announcement.
Those skeptical of North Korean intentions will find it difficult to believe that they have fundamentally changed their strategic calculus or position toward denuclearization. The South Korean message is that North Korea is willing to denuclearize if the security of the country can be guaranteed and the military threat from the United States eliminated. This is not a new formulation, however, of North Korean intentions.
Based on past talks between the United States and North Korea, we know that “guaranteeing the nation’s security” essentially means the ultimate removal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula and the dissolution of the U.S.-ROK alliance. It is therefore entirely conceivable that the North will seek to conclude a peace treaty. The issue for Washington is that a peace deal would be difficult to monitor. Moreover, the long history of dealing with the North is littered with a string of broken promises and problems of verification. North Korea’s call for a peace treaty is not, in any case, intended to achieve an effective and lasting peace mechanism to replace the Armistice Agreement but simply to facilitate a negotiation process that would lead to the pullout of U.S. troops from South Korea and an end to the U.S.-ROK alliance. Also, it is not clear that North Korea’s formulation of “denuclearization” means the same thing as the U.S. position on complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. If the two parties do not see eye-to-eye on this principle of denuclearization, it will be difficult to make substantial progress during a bilateral summit.
Q4: What happens if the talks fail?
A4: North Korean intentions may be tested through dialogue, but there should be healthy skepticism about any outcome direct talks may produce. On one hand, the Trump administration will want the North to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and may even agree to conclude a peace treaty in return. But even if there is such an agreement, how would we possibly verify that the North will do what it agrees to do? We do not know how many nuclear weapons are currently operational or where all their nuclear facilities are. On the other hand, if the talks fail and there is no agreement of any sort, a big risk is that the White House, having tried negotiation, could come away from the meeting further convinced that it should resolve the nuclear issue by kinetic means. For now, the Trump administration needs to devise a comprehensive negotiating strategy and appoint a skillful negotiator and strong interagency team to prepare for the summit.
Simultaneously, however, it needs to continue to formulate and plan for realistic secondary options, including a strategy of robust deterrence and continuing diplomatic and economic pressure.
Q5: Why is the message being delivered through South Korea?
A5: The South Korean president has made tremendous efforts to start dialogue with the North Koreans, and the XXIII Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang provided a unique opportunity for the restoration of inter-Korean relations. In the calculus of North Koreans, current conditions may have made it easier to approach the Moon Jae-in government in South Korea rather than the Trump administration first.
Q6: Where do the Chinese fit in? What will be the Chinese reaction? What about the Japanese and Russians?
A6: The Chinese will be supportive of dialogue initially but also suspicious of any direct deals between the United States and North Korea that could potentially cut China out of the picture. China, for example, would not support talks on a peace agreement or a final solution to the question of Korean unification without being part of the diplomatic discussions. Japan has supported the U.S. economic pressure campaign and is likely to be worried about the lack of coordination on strategies for dialogue. The announcement about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting Washington next month may reflect the desire to coordinate more closely. National Security Adviser Chung and the South Korean delegation are also scheduled to visit Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo in the coming weeks. We anticipate more concrete responses from China, Russia, and Japan in the very near future.
Dr. Sue Mi Terry is a senior fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @SueMiTerry. Ms. Lisa Collins is a fellow with the CSIS Korea Chair.This piece first appeared as a CSIS Critical Questions here.
Dr. Sue Mi Terry is senior fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS.