Shortly after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics ended, the prospects for further dialogue between North Korea, South Korea and the United States improved dramatically. South Korean officials visited North Korea and met with Kim Jong-un, agreeing to hold a summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim in April. Not only that, Kim Jong-un extended an invitation to hold a summit meeting with President Trump as well. Trump immediately accepted the offer, setting the stage for a unprecedented international meeting between the United States and North Korea. To top it all off, Kim reportedly traveled to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in his first visit abroad since assuming power.
The North Korean crisis has been a complete roller-coaster ever since Trump became president and started hurling personal insults at Kim. Now, though, historic developments have opened up possible negotiations between the United States and the two Koreas. The United States and North Korea are purportedly currently engaged in secret talks to establish a meeting place for a summit between Kim Jong-un and Trump, as well as the topics for discussion. What is at stake in this planned summit between Kim and Trump, and how will the leaders involved try to accomplish their geopolitical agendas?
What the Participants Want
Kim Jong-un would not have extended an offer to meet with both Moon and Trump without good geopolitical reasons for doing so. North Korea’s goal in both the short and long term is regime survival. Kim has sought nuclear capabilities because nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent in modern international politics; his fervent pursuit of them is why most experts doubt that he would be willing to discuss denuclearization at all, despite reports that say he is. For Kim Jong-un to even consider denuclearization as part of negotiations, the United States and South Korea would have to acquiesce to policies that guarantee North Korea’s survival and fundamentally alter the geopolitical situation in northeast Asia—in my opinion, for the worse.
Kim Jong-un has already agreed to suspend missile tests until the summit talks in what seems to be a show of good faith, but evidence points to nuclear activity still taking place in North Korea. In exchange for denuclearization, Kim Jong-un would likely demand that the United States withdraw its substantial military presence from the Korean Peninsula and end its formal alliance with South Korea before opening North Korea to further interaction with the South. But demands such as these are undebatable and unacceptable for the United States without a confirmable North Korean commitment to denuclearization. Even then, under no circumstances would the United States sever its alliance with South Korea.
It is also possible, as new National Security Advisor John Bolton thinks, that North Korea is simply using these summit offerings to buy time. Kim Jong-un has brought North Korea closer to nuclear deterrence capability than it has ever been, and he would naturally want to finish the job as fast as possible now to deter Trump. If North Korea comes close to acquiring a nuclear weapon capable of being deployed against the United States, Kim Jong-un will have gained an enormous diplomatic advantage and force Trump to act.
The United States’ policy towards North Korea remains relatively unchanged from what it has always been: complete denuclearization of North Korea and the promotion of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The United States, however, will not reduce its military presence in South Korea nor break off its ties with the South even to attain these goals, even though those are the outcomes North Korea will probably insist on. Trump seems confident that he can make a deal with North Korea to halt its nuclear program without compromising the United States’ geopolitical interests in northeast Asia. His confidence in his own ability to procure that kind of deal—misplaced or otherwise—is why he accepted Kim Jong-un’s summit offer immediately after hearing it from South Korean officials.
While North Korea’s position in this geopolitical quagmire is the most unknowable, South Korea’s is probably the tensest. Moon has made it clear that he wants to foster inter-Korean dialogue to preserve peace on the peninsula—but he has had to do it while balancing two hothead personalities in Kim and Trump, who, for the better part of the last year, have been in an escalating war of words. South Korea stands to suffer enormous consequences if conflict should break out, which made Trump’s repeated threats and intimations of unilateral action against North Korea incredibly alarming.
That being said, I’ve argued that Moon emerged from the Winter Olympics in prime position to pursue his agenda with North Korea. The coming summit between Moon and Kim, which will take place before Kim meets with Trump (if that happens at all) is further evidence that he’s in a strong position. In addition, the fact that Kim is going to meet with both Moon and Trump indicates that Kim has failed to capitalize on the two allies’ differences and drive a wedge between them. Of course, if the situation deteriorates rapidly, that opportunity may present itself again, but for now Moon has lived up to his campaign promise of inter-Korean peace.
Two Madmen Come Face-to-Face
The most interesting aspect of this potential summit between Kim and Trump, in my view, is their personal similarity. Trump, as is widely known, is a hugely egoistic, bombastic, and brash leader who makes decisions impulsively and often without the support of his advisors. Kim Jong-un, being the dictator of a secretive and tyrannical state, shares many of those qualities. Both men have been raised to believe that they are the singularly most vital person that exists in their own world. Their life experiences have reinforced that belief in each of them.
I hinted at this strange similarity between Trump and Kim Jong-un in October when I used Trump’s “rocket man” insult to describe them both. I also criticized Trump for his childish approach to North Korea, which has since morphed into something representing real diplomacy. When two men, so alike in their makeup but representing such different nations and interests, come together to discuss the fate of an entire region—with reverberations around the world—who enters with the negotiating edge?
It is important to note that Kim Jong-un has already scored a victory by getting Trump to agree to meet with him. While the United States is vastly more powerful than North Korea, Kim Jong-un meeting with Trump in the flesh will have far-reaching implications in public perception. The United States does not formally recognize North Korea, but Trump has, in effect, recognized Kim Jong-un as a rival leader of a nation-state worthy of his time. That legitimacy will bolster Kim’s national propaganda efforts and his own confidence moving forward. That does not mean that Trump was wrong to accept—I think it was the right decision, hasty though it was—but it is an unintended consequence.
Kim Jong-un is still an unknown character, so much so that we are not even sure of his exact age. He remained in the shadows until taking power after his father’s death in 2011 and had not traveled abroad from North Korea to meet a foreign leader until this year. But Kim Jong-un has been trained for this role his entire young life, and by meeting with leaders such as Xi, Moon and Trump, he is putting his skills to use to lead North Korea forward in a very tenuous international environment. His unpredictability surpasses even Trump’s and should not be underestimated by any stretch of the imagination.
In classic Trumpian fashion, Trump has flipped the traditional negotiation process on its head. Normally, a high-stakes diplomatic engagement like this would start small and build towards direct contact between leaders. Here, Kim has proposed a meeting to possibly jumpstart the negotiation process instead of culminating it, and Trump agreed instantly. Obviously, Trump is used to conducting himself in an unorthodox fashion. Yet so far, Kim has made all the real power moves in this ongoing process; Trump has just talked a big game in his speeches and on Twitter. This is partly to be expected, though, as it is easier for a smaller state like North Korea to make regional geopolitical moves than a behemoth like the United States.
What is equally Trumpian in the lead-up to the summit meeting is the total chaos Trump has sown in his national security support system. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is gone and Mike Pompeo’s confirmation as his replacement will take weeks; National Security Advisor H.R.McMaster is gone too, replaced by the hawkish John Bolton, who has previously advocated preventive strikes on North Korea and dismissed talks altogether. The State Department’s best North Korea expert retired in February. Even prior to this dysfunction, a former Obama official said there would be no way Trump could prepare himself for high-level talks with Kim Jong-un in time for a summit. Now, with the State Department gashed and new faces in abundance, Trump will be going in with little backup.
Trump seems to be embracing the madman strategy with his throttle wide open. Since taking office he has demonstrated highly erratic behavior in general and toward North Korea in particular. He threatens “fire and fury” but then expresses hope for sincere peace talks. He appointed Bolton, who will likely continue pressing for preventive strike plans. In short, Trump has tried to convince Kim Jong-un that he is willing to harm North Korea militarily in a manner that no previous president would commit to, and that he is as unpredictable as Kim and must be treated with extreme caution. Unfortunately for Trump, Kim is as just as committed to unpredictability. It’s not clear what happens when two leaders try the madman strategy at the same time.
Trump will enter these negotiations with the power of the United States on his side, but Kim will have the diplomatic edge. Further, Kim will be coming off his talks with Moon, which, should they go well, will bolster his position further. Kim has expressed a desire to “rewrite history” on the peninsula and could conceivably build on the momentum generated by positive talks with Moon that Trump would not be immediately privy to. Trump is once again betting on himself to do what other presidents could not. Nevertheless, the negotiating position appears advantageous to Kim Jong-un right now.
Completing the Puzzle: South Korea, China, and Japan
Moon has been worried about the possibility of unilateral American military action against North Korea from the start. Trump’s refusal to rule out such an attack, coupled with Bolton’s entrance, does nothing to assuage those fears. In addition, Trump has shown that he is still willing to use his leverage against South Korea to improve the United States’ position in northeast Asia. As a result, tensions still exist between the pacifist Moon and the more bombastic Trump. Kim would be wise to continue poking holes in that relationship, especially given that the summits will be separate (although Moon has hinted at three-way talks at some point).
Kim Jong-un visited Xi Jinping in Beijing in March, a move that came out of nowhere but in retrospect makes perfect sense. It was Kim’s first time meeting a major world leader and it would have been strange for him to have met Moon and Trump before meeting Xi. After all, China is still North Korea’s only real military ally and its best economic partner. The meeting is also a opportunity for Xi to reassert China’s power and role in the future of the Korean Peninsula which cannot be forgotten. In any case, it makes sense for Kim to meet with a friendly leader before having high-stakes negotiations with adversaries. He needs all the support he can get.
Japan has stayed surprisingly quiet during these developments on the peninsula. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has maintained North Korean denuclearization as the end-goal of any talks, but the proposed summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un has prompted fears that Japan will be left out of a crucial diplomatic event. Abe is apparently going to meet Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida to discuss the situation. Japan relies heavily on the political and military umbrella that the United States provides and cannot afford any reduction in the US-Japan security alliance, especially if Kim Jong-un demands it.
What’s the Most Likely Outcome?
North Korea is definitely still going to pursue nuclear weapons: they are too good a deterrent and too crucial to Kim Jong-un’s national image for him to give them up. That being said, Kim feels that he has an advantage to gain by dangling denuclearization to set up summit talks. North Korea is closer than ever to gaining nuclear weapons, and Kim either wants to stall for time to get to that point or truly believes that he can broker a deal with Moon and Trump that will help guarantee his regime’s survival. It is also possible he is doing both: they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Trump, as usual, believes in the grandiose deal-making vision of himself that he has advertised throughout his life. But he is up against very difficult odds without a strong support network and has already entered a situation where Kim Jong-un holds the initiative, which makes it all the more difficult for Trump to broker an acceptable agreement. Trump’s embrace of the madman strategy can be mitigated by Kim’s use of a similar approach. Trump’s position, coupled with the reality that his goals are directly opposed to North Korea’s, makes it hard to envision a scenario where Trump gets a great deal done.
Moon wants to maintain good relations with Trump while pursuing his inter-Korean agenda. But his faith in the United States has to be cautioned by Trump’s bellicosity too. Trump has threatened unilateral military action against North Korea like no previous president. The prospect of a preventive strike terrifies Moon and his government - and it should. I still doubt that Moon is willing to sacrifice the United States’ military presence or the US-South Korea alliance in order to improve inter-Korean affairs. South Korea needs the United States’ umbrella just like Japan does.
There seem to be three possible outcomes from the two summits with Kim Jong-un: One, a deal is made; two, no deal is made but a commitment is made to further talks; and three, the summit fails to make headway and leads to heightened tensions again. The most likely outcome is the second scenario. In fact, if the summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un goes through, I hope this is the outcome.
Any potential deal will have to include unacceptable provisions for the United States and its relationship with South Korea; on the other side, North Korea is going to pursue nuclear weaponry, secretively or publicly, no matter what they say in negotiations. There is no way that the United States can agree to a deal that would compromise American interests in northeast Asia while failing to improve our national security.
But if the summits fail, a return to geopolitical tensions could be costly. North Korea is inching closer to nuclear capabilities that could threaten the United States. If tensions escalate and North Korea develops a missile that can reach the continental US, then Bolton’s policy of a preventive strike will become a real option under consideration to protect the American homeland—and Trump will certainly prioritize the homeland over allies like South Korea or even Japan.
The summit talks are still a good idea, and Trump should meet with Kim Jong-un. If the United States is to effectively combat the North Korean threat, the president and his cabinet need to pull back the veil on North Korea. Doing so carries the risk of giving Kim more time to develop a nuclear threat, but it also provides an opportunity for Moon and Trump to steer the peninsula into a better geopolitical trajectory for all parties involved.
When Trump and Kim Jong-un encounter one another, it will be an historic event in international history. Hopefully it will be historic not just for its novelty but also for contributing to long-term peace and stability with North Korea, rather than for engulfing the entire peninsula in fire and fury.The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.