Security and Foreign Policy

North Korea Summit on the Rocks, Both Sides Will Need to Make Concessions

As the North Korea summit nears, tensions remain high with the US and South Korea's upcoming joint military exercises. Andy Laub takes a closer look at the hurdles ahead of the impending summit arguing that concessions will need to be made on both sides for there to be a lasting peace.


The stage is set for a historic summit in Singapore on June 12, the first ever meeting between a sitting U.S President and a North Korean leader. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are expected to sit down to talk about the beginning steps for North Korea to begin taking the verifiable steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and perhaps serve as an icebreaker to improve fraught relations between the historical enemies. Ever since the Olympic détente back in February and recent inter-Korean summit with Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In the momentum has been moving in the right direction. North Korea has kept its word in freezing all nuclear and ballistic missile test sites even going so far as beginning to dismantle its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri and has the international press in on May 23 to watch the completion of the site’s destruction. It even prompted a tweet from President Trump: “North Korea has announced that they will dismantle Nuclear Test Site this month, ahead of the big Summit Meeting on June 12th. Thank you, a very smart and gracious gesture!” North Korea released the three remaining American prisoners as a good will gesture ahead of the summit prompting President Trump’s dramatic 2 AM press conference at Andrew’s Air Force base to welcome them back.

This warming of relations has raised many questions after such a sharp turnaround from just a few months ago when the two leaders were taunting each other with words like “fire and fury” and “dotard”. It begs the questions: Is Kim Jong-Un being genuine and what exactly is he looking for? The important thing to remember with regard to this summit is that Kim Jong-Un is not going to give away anything for free and it will be important to keep tabs on what concessions he is seeking from the United States. As of now it is not entirely clear what concessions he is looking for. Also, the talks are potentially in trouble as the United States and South Korea conduct their joint military drills, long viewed as a threat by Pyongyang. Now that Kim Jong-Un has strategically put the issue of the joint military exercises back in Trump’s court, the administration will need to make a decision to whether to suspend them so the talks can go through while potentially alienating our important regional allies South Korea and Japan, who depend on them for security guarantees. The US-ROK joint military exercises will continue to be an issue that will remain on the table for Kim Jong-Un and North Korea to bring up as a possible concession. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has now met with the North Korean leader twice, has said the Trump administration was heading into these talks with its “eyes open” even offering economic aid to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization. Economic aid has long been an offer by the United States yet it has failed to bring the North Koreans to the table to produce fruitful results. Another issue that could potentially be contentious is the presence of 28,500 U.S troops on the peninsula, another subject of dispute for North Korea. On May 3, the New York Times reported that President Trump had ordered the Pentagon to review potential troop reductions on the Korean peninsula only for the White House to deny it shortly thereafter. The U.S presence on the peninsula will continue to be a major issue for diplomacy going forward with North Korea.

With President Trump recently pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, he has raised the stakes for this summit considerably, with little room for recourse should it either fall apart, not happen at all or not go well. Even if the summit with Kim Jong-Un goes well, the administration has provided minimal details in the way of substantive strategy going forward for how diplomacy with North Korea over their nuclear weapons program will proceed following the talks. In terms of the structure of negotiations, it can be bilateral such as the Agreed Framework in 1994 under the Clinton Administration or multilateral in the form of the six party talks under the Bush Administration. And what exactly is the Trump Administration willing to concede to North Korea to truly get them to disarm? Nothing is given away for free; with the recent withdrawal from the Iran deal U.S credibility is questionable, especially for adversaries like North Korea. Similarly, North Koreans have frequently used the example of Libya and its former leader Moammar Gadhafi, who in 2004 voluntarily gave up his nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees only to find himself be deposed and brutally murdered seven years later during the Arab Spring rebellion backed by NATO forces. Would things have been different if Gadhafi had kept his nuclear arsenal? National Security Advisor John Bolton, a frequent critic of diplomacy with North Korea recently said that the Trump Administration will use the “Libya model” when it comes to nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, which poses concerns about the administrations earnestness when it comes to substantively following through with a robust agreement, one that will be much more challenging than the Iran deal. Given that North Korea already possesses a significant nuclear stockpile giving Kim Jong-Un more cards to play at the upcoming summit, there has been little to no indication of the involvement of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ahead of the talks.

President Trump has expressed his strong desire for a deal with North Korea even tempering his rhetoric on North Korea and saying Kim Jong-Un has acted “honorably” throughout this process. He will likely try to use this summit to make it look like a quick win to enhance his troubled political standing at home. However, there are no quick wins in diplomacy; it takes patience and substantive hard work, good will and concessions on both sides as well as strong verification mechanisms to ensure compliance with any agreement reached, which has always been the trouble with North Korea in the past. While there is hope for a good summit, the real work still remains.

Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Photo Credit: LA Times

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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