Security and Foreign Policy

Off Again-On Again Trump-Kim Summit Continues With Flurry of Diplomacy

The North Korean Summit has been gripped with tensions following Trump's cancellation and subsequent re-instatement. Andy Laub examines the diplomatic overtures from both North Korea and the United States as well as the effect they will have on the upcoming summit.


President Donald Trump on Friday announced that his infamous June 12th summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was back on after abruptly canceling it in a letter to Mr. Kim last week. He cited the “open hostility” in the North Korean government’s most recent statements regarding Vice President Pence’s reference to the Libya model for nuclear disarmament. However, the North Koreans didn’t take the bait and instead of reverting back to their usual hostility towards the United States they doubled down on their diplomatic posture as South Korean President Moon Jae-In and Kim Jong-Un held a surprise meeting at the DMZ to try and revive the summit. North Korea dispatched Mr. Kim’s top aide and former spy chief Kim Yong Chol to the United States, for which he had to obtain sanctions waivers, given his alleged involvement in the hacking of Sony Pictures in 2014. He first dined in New York with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over steak in a rooftop restaurant where the New York City skyline was present, something no North Koreans will likely ever experience. Furthermore Mr. Trump confirmed that human rights is not on the agenda for his upcoming talks with Kim Jong-Un. On Friday, Kim Yong Chol traveled to Washington to hand deliver a letter to President Trump from Kim Jong-Un and just like that the summit was back on. Kim Yong Chol was given a warm welcome at the White House, as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Chief of Staff John Kelly greeted him upon his arrival and he even got a few moments with President Trump in the Oval office. That as Trump was lashing out at America’s closest ally Canada for what he considers unfair trade practices to justify his imposition of tariffs on them, without offering any evidence.

Other nations look to the United States to be a leader when it comes to diplomacy and human rights. When President Trump is so frivolous over something as important as handling North Korea’s nuclear program, it hurts America’s standing in the world as our allies and adversaries rightfully question whether they can trust the word of the United States if its leader hastily promises a historic meeting with the leader of North Korea, cancels and then reschedules it. In fact, it is America’s credibility problem that is on the line in these very high stakes talks with North Korea. As referenced earlier, the Libya model where the Bush administration convinced Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to give up his nuclear weapons for economic incentives and normalized relations only to find himself overthrown and killed seven years later.

What kind of security guarantees is the Trump administration willing to provide Kim Jong-Un that will finally get North Korea to denuclearize? The one clear thing we did not hear from President Trump was what is his strategy going forward in negotiations with North Korea. Furthermore, there have not been any verifiable concessions of denuclearization promised or given by North Korea. Thus far, it only appears to be theatre and the North Koreans are winning because they have gotten what they crave most, which is to have been legitimized on the world stage by the United States. Upon re-agreeing to the summit in Singapore, President Trump was quick to lower expectations from denuclearization to it being more of a “meet and greet” type of scenario, so the two leaders could break the ice and Trump could rely on his personal connections. He feels more comfortable with negotiating directly with Mr. Kim at the highest levels over the future of the North’s nuclear program. The administration previously had posited that the North Korean regime must give up all weapons up-front yet they now seem to be more open to a phased-in approach. Thus far, the only concession from North Korea has been the destruction of the Punggye-ri test site, but there has been no international verification that it was actually destroyed and questions lingered over whether it was still usable. Additionally, there has been no talk of the International Atomic Energy Association’s (IAEA’s) role in any potential nuclear negotiations with North Korea, given they would be key in sending in inspectors to assure compliance on the part of North Korea, arguably the most important part, given we have signed international agreements with North Korea before. Another key question is what role will key regional players such as South Korea, Japan and China play in any potential talks. South Korea is especially important as the U.S’ closest ally. Given President Moon, who is spearheading the diplomatic efforts, has now been mentioned as a possible attendee on June 12th in Singapore as he often plays the not-always-so comfortable role as the middle man between Trump and Kim. But the three nations will have to play pivotal roles in any talks with North Korea according to Mr. Trump’s comments at the press pool “It’s their neighborhood we are very far away.”

The Trump administration risks making the same mistakes his predecessors made, ones he so vocally says he is trying to avoid when it comes to negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. The North Koreans have long rejected economic aid in exchange for dismantling its nuclear program, for the same reasons referenced in Libya. Furthermore, greater integration with the West threatens to disrupt Kim Jong Un’s cult of personality leadership he, his Father and Grandfather have used to keep the rogue nation afoot for this long. Secretary of State of Mike Pompeo has said the United States is heading into talks with North Korea with “its eyes open” with regards to past mistakes in negotiating with North Korea. But the U.S. has again recently not offered anything new just economic aid for North Korea to dismantle. President Trump also frequently references North Korea’s economic potential for giving up its nuclear program. But what is not being considered is the failure of the talks. Should that occur, does the United States revert back to its maximum pressure strategy, which has been the cornerstone of the administration’s strategy on North Korea to implement tough biting sanctions both domestically and through the UN Security Council. But President Trump said on Friday “I don’t want to use the term maximum pressure anymore…you see the relationship. We are getting along.” Furthermore major powers like China, North Korea’s only ally will likely be reluctant to go back on that path given the two countries’ economic ties. Thus there is little room for recourse should the Trump administrations’ diplomatic efforts fail. The one positive term President Trump referenced Friday was “process” alluding that his meeting with Kim Jong-Un was the start of a process. Nobody needs a meeting for the sake of a meeting unless it leads to something greater; usually it happens in reverse when in 2000 Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited North Korea with the progress of the Agreed Framework. It is just not clear what that process from the Trump administration is going to look like. There needs to be a vision for a broader long-term strategy when it comes to North Korea, which should also include human rights and a team of the best diplomatic experts in place ready to play the long game.

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: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

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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