Trump-Kim meeting faces hurdles
After exchanging harsh rhetoric and military threats with US President Donald Trump last year, Democratic People's Republic of Korea leader Kim Jong-un has abandoned his high pitch, moderated his tone, and launched several charm offensives this year, including his New Year's address, the DPRK's participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, and proposed meetings between Kim and Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in in April and Trump in May.
One day after the announcement of the proposed meeting between Kim and Trump, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the meeting would depend on concrete actions taken by the DPRK. US-DPRK exchanges in the past have been subject to frequent hassles. Things could change faster than expected. And even if Kim and Trump were to meet in May, provided there are no setbacks, the meeting might not yield bold positive results.
The first question is whether Trump's team is ready for the proposed meeting.
Even after a specific date for the "summit" is announced, the two parties might not be ready, as evidenced from the way former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was "shouted down" by Trump last year when he tried to move forward with diplomacy. Tillerson was removed from the office on Tuesday. So it will not be easy for Trump to assemble a team of Korean Peninsula experts in two months.
Before former US president Barack Obama negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran, his administration had already drafted a detailed and technical agreement. If the Trump administration is serious about making a breakthrough in the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, it should be fully prepared before May, because the US president cannot expect to use his old playbook to negotiate with Kim and succeed.
The other important question is: What would the two leaders talk about? Both are expected to deliver something to the international and their respective domestic audiences. Pyongyang has indicated its willingness to talk about denuclearization and to refrain from conducting any more nuclear or missile tests, but Trump wants the DPRK to match its promises with concrete and verifiable actions.
How to define and verify "concrete actions"? These talking points sound familiar to veteran observers. Trump has been boasting that he can make deals, but Kim said in his New Year's address that the DPRK has at last come to possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent, which no force can reverse. Suppose the DPRK offers something big with regard to denuclearization, what can Trump offer in return? So far, the US has insisted that its joint drills with the ROK will continue as planned, and it will not step back or change its maximum pressure campaign. How can they square the circle, and produce something conducive to progress and acceptable to both sides?
Reviewing the past could be very frustrating, but it is still worth giving diplomacy a chance, as the peninsula nuclear issue has reached a critical point, and the window for diplomacy is narrowing.
The exchange of rhetoric between Trump and Kim last year was alarming, and a military conflict, whether intended or accidental, is no longer beyond imagination. And even if the two leaders avoid a military conflict, the other parties to the issue would expect more－an end to the US-DPRK stalemate for example.
For the DPRK, the sanctions against it are harsh. For the US, a nuclear-armed DPRK with the capability of striking the US is unacceptable, not to mention the implications of nuclear proliferation, and its repercussions in Northeast Asia.
Thus, if neither a military option nor a nuclear-armed DPRK is acceptable to the US, diplomacy is something worth exploring. Both Pyongyang and Washington made commitments in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks that they have to talk the talk and walk the walk, instead of shifting burdens to other countries.
In this sense, the proposed Trump-Kim meeting would be a great opportunity to test the two sides' intentions, and hopefully the two egotist leaders will make it rather than break it.
The author is a senior fellow at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.