As President Trump has committed to meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before May, there are a variety of things he needs to know, and do, to be prepared for this meeting. North Korea’s past actions indicate that it is likely to be duplicitous, and the President needs clarity to see through the country’s strategy.
South Korea’s national security adviser indicated that Kim’s letter to Trump signaled several possible concessions from North Korea: that it is willing to denuclearize, that it is willing to enter a testing moratorium for the course of the negotiations, and that it is willing to accept (for the time being) the scheduled U.S.-South Korea military exercises. The President must understand that these rhetorical concessions do not necessarily represent a true change of position by the regime. All of this is likely nothing more than a tactic to get President Trump to speak directly to Kim, especially considering North Korea has wanted direct negotiations with the United States for years. Traditionally, the U.S., including the Trump Administration, has dismissed bilateral talks with North Korea without demonstrated concrete concessions and preconditions.
The decision to meet with Kim is a reversal of this position, but isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While North Korea’s invitation offers a softer tone than normal, the opportunity of changing up the otherwise stale diplomatic process with North Korea is worth exploring.
However, it would be a mistake for President Trump to meet with Kim alone. The President needs a team of experts and advisors in the room with him. And though translators may be needed as Kim’s English proficiency is unclear, there also needs to be analysts in the room who are able to make judgements on what transpires.. The situation is too important, and the potential consequences are too dangerous for one person to enter on their own. Thomas Wright of Brookings notes that the president may be tempted to make concessions that appear to benefit the U.S. in the short term, but will ultimately harm the security of our long-standing allies in the region. He needs to be restrained by experts with experience in dealing with and understanding North Korea.
What’s on the Table
If as, as the White House has stated, “all options are on the table,” then the possibility of military action must, by nature of the statement, also include diplomacy.
There are several things that Kim is likely to ask for in any direct negotiations with the United States. These include:
- A formal, written treaty ending the Korean War
- A partial or full withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula
- Economic aid, food assistance, energy assistance, and an easing/cessation of international sanctions against the regime
- The acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state at its current level of development
All of these things represent enormous concessions on the part of the United States, and severely weaken its negotiating leverage. The Trump Administration needs to have internal conversations about America’s bottom line in terms of what its willing to give up before he meets with Kim, so that mistakes aren’t made.
A concession of interest made in the Kim invitation is that North Korea has offered to enter a missile and nuclear testing moratorium for the course of negotiations. However, this moratorium doesn’t come out of nowhere: It has been over 160 days since North Korea’s last nuclear test on September 27, and over 100 days since North Korea’s last missile test on November 28. This is a significant decrease of pace in missile testing considering North Korea performed a missile test roughly once every 12 days between its first and last tests of 2017. There may be several reasons for this moratorium, including the high cost of testing and the pressure of sanctions, a lack of material resources, or further efforts to do research and development prior to another test—but it should not be assumed that North Korea is willing to do this out of good will. Instead, the lapse in testing may be to the North’s advantage.
If this is the start of a bigger process with North Korea, we must also understand that while we have no reason to trust the Kim regime, it also has no reason to trust the Trump administration. President Trump’s treatment of the Iran deal is exhibit number 1 on why North Korea is unlikely to enter any binding deal with the current President. A deal is a deal, not an opportunity to continue pressing for more while threatening to pull out. As President Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran Deal, a deal made with direct respect to a nuclear weapons program, North Korea sees no reason to trust the United States to carry out negotiations in good faith. Previous deals with North Korea saw reneges by both sides, and nothing indicates that will be any different at this point.
What is different this time around is that Kim Jong Un himself is a new negotiating party, and we cannot be entirely sure of the tact he is going to take compared to his predecessors. President Trump’s leadership style is also something completely unprecedented in recent American history, lending credence to the possibility that something different may arise from this meeting. But Kim’s pattern of behavior indicates he is not interested in nuclear disarmament, demonstrated by the overall rapid pace of development and testing within the North Korean program since his taking power. It would make little sense for North Korea to spend such considerable effort to develop a nuclear deterrent that it plans to surrender without gaining something equally as effective for the continued survival of the regime.
In the end, President Trump must not allow this meeting to set a precedent for making the negotiations with North Korea a bilateral agreement between it and the United States—no matter how much he might prefer it. Though the President has expressed an affinity for bilateral agreements, a deal on the situation on the Korean Peninsula cannot be made in an artificial vacuum of U.S.-North Korea relations. South Korea’s value to the United States and to the world as a friend and partner outweighs the risks posed by a nuclear North Korean regime interested almost entirely in self-preservation. Any final agreement with North Korea must not be solely between the U.S. and that country, but involve our South Korean allies, and have the backing of the other actors in the region. The president must not make any immediate commitments or decisions as a result of this meeting.