Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.
The last six weeks has seen unprecedented developments in the diplomatic relations between the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Following a year of rising tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, which saw the North Korean government escalate its nuclear weapons development program and conduct 11 missile tests and one atomic detonation over 2017, and that in turn prompted President Donald Trump to threaten to unleash "fire and fury" over North Korea and precipitated the imposition of UN sponsored, wide-ranging, economic sanctions against the North Korean regime, the two governments have signaled their willingness to hold a summit to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The proposed summit caps a de-escalation of tensions that was initiated by Pyongyang when, in a speech on New Year's Day, Kim proposed sending a delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Seoul quickly extended an invitation to Pyongyang to participate.
In addition to fielding a joint women's hockey team with South Korea, North Korea sent additional athletes, entertainers and a political delegation that included Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong. During the Olympics, she hand-delivered a proposal from Kim for a summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. This was the first time that a member of the Kim family had traveled to South Korea since the end of hostilities in the Korean War.
South Korean President Moon has made outreach to Pyongyang a central element of his Korean policy. Following the close of the Pyeongchang Olympics, a 10-member delegation from South Korea, headed by Moon's National Security Advisor Chung Evi-yong and Suh Horn, the director of South Korea's National Intelligence Service, traveled to Pyongyang for high level meetings with Kim Jong-un and members of his government. These were the first senior South Korean officials to meet with Kim Jong-un since he took power six years ago.
According to Chung, at one of those meetings Kim Jong-un expressed his willingness to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump. The next week, Chung traveled to Washington to brief the Trump Administration on the substance of those talks and to convey to President Trump Kim's willingness to meet.
President Trump immediately accepted the offer, even before he had an opportunity to advise his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a key ally in the region. Subsequently, the Trump Administration clarified its position on the proposed summit to make clear that it wanted a clear commitment of total nuclear disarmament from North Korea, as well as other, at the time unspecified, concessions, which were described as substantial.
Considering that less than a year ago the Trump Administration was beefing up U.S. military forces in East Asia and issuing civil defense warnings to the civilian government of Guam, the turnaround in the relationship between the two countries seems remarkable.
Is this the beginning of an actual thaw between Washington and Pyongyang, a thaw that could lead to the elimination of a nuclear threat by North Korea to its neighbors and to the United States? Or, is it just the latest example of the smoke and mirrors diplomacy that Pyongyang has used in the past to obtain breathing room from the imposition of yet more sanctions and to buy time, not to mention to avert a military strike, while it finishes its nuclear missile development program?
The Diplomatic Consequences of the Proposed Summit
Regardless of whether the Trump-Kim summit goes ahead, Pyongyang has already reaped a significant increase in its diplomatic standing. A summit with an American president has been a long-term goal of the Kim family--a goal unattainable until now. In light, of the proposed summit, other East Asian nations have also reached out to Pyongyang.
A few weeks after the proposed summit was announced, Kim traveled to Beijing to meet, for the first time, with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It's unclear whether the meeting was initiated by North Korea or China. Kim traveled to Beijing in what was described as an armored military train. It was the first foreign trip undertaken by Kim since coming to power six years ago.
The absence of a prior announcement from the Chinese government and the lack of the extensive diplomatic niceties that China is known for, strongly suggest that the meeting was initiated by Pyongyang. Beijing is no doubt anxious not to find itself marginalized in any subsequent agreement between North Korea and the United States.
Kim, in reaching out to China and later Russia, is shoring up diplomatic support from his two historic allies to strengthen his hand in whatever negotiations subsequently transpire with the U.S. Most importantly, Pyongyang is undoubtedly looking to Moscow and Beijing to take the initiative in rolling back the UN imposed economic sanctions.
In the meantime, Moon and Kim have agreed to hold a summit at the end of April at the Peace House, a South Korean building in Panmunjom--the so-called truce village--which straddles the border between the two countries. This is only the third summit between the two Korea's since the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953.
The village was the site of the signing of the 1953 Armistice. The two countries also agreed to install a dedicated hotline, for the first time, allowing the leaders of both countries to speak on the phone directly.
Japan, also concerned that it might be sidelined by an agreement between Kim and Trump, has also reached out to Pyongyang to set up direct talks with Kim Jong-un. The meeting would take place after the Trump-Kim summit, mostly likely in June. In the past, Tokyo had refused to meet with Kim until Pyongyang committed itself to denuclearization.
What Japan fears most is an agreement that would allow North Korea to retain its short range nuclear missiles in return for scrapping its intercontinental range ballistic missiles. Tokyo also wants to resolve still pending questions concerning Japanese citizens that were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s.
The U.S. and China
Beijing is deeply concerned about what happens on the Korean Peninsula and the aftermath of a Trump-Kim summit. From China's standpoint, the preferred outcome is a continuation of the present status of a communist North Korea deeply dependent on China.
Beijing, of course, would prefer to see the U.S. withdraw from South Korea and terminate the mutual security treaty with Seoul. Such an outcome is unlikely in the short-term, however. Moreover, a U.S. withdrawal could be a mixed blessing. It would likely speed up the rearmament of Japan and South Korea and may push both countries to develop their own nuclear arsenals.
The worse outcome, from China's standpoint, would be the economic and political collapse of North Korea, either because of a military attack or as a consequence of economic sanctions. Such a collapse would drive millions of North Korean refugees over the border into China. It would also likely result in a unification of the two Koreas under the leadership of the South. A prosperous, democratic Korea allied with the United States on China's border is Beijing's least desirable option.
Moreover, Washington's assessment of what role Beijing can play in resolving the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang has a broader bearing on the state of U.S.-China relations. It is no coincidence that Washington has chosen to threaten tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S. at precisely the same time that the U.S. is contemplating direct negotiations with North Korea.
The Trump-Kim Summit
As of April 10, the date of the proposed summit has not yet been set. The Trump Administration has confirmed that it is holding diplomatic talks with North Korea in an unspecified country.
In addition, a group led by current CIA director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, has been meeting with members of the North Korean delegation to the UN. Euphemistically called the "UN channel," this unofficial point of contact has often been used for communicating with the North Korean government.
According to unconfirmed reports, North Korea has been pushing to hold the summit in Pyongyang, while the Trump administration has been pushing for a more neutral site. The Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator has been rumored to be Washington's preferred venue.
The larger question, however, is whether the Trump-Kim Summit will yield a diplomatic solution to the current crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear missile development program. More importantly, if the proposed summit fails to reach a resolution, does that mean that Washington will be far more likely to revert to a military option?
The Trump Administration has been clear about its expectations for North Korea: the complete abandonment of Pyongyang's nuclear missile development program, independent certification that all atomic weaponry and its supporting infrastructure has been dismantled and an exhaustive program of inspection to ensure that the program is not restarted.
In previous comments regarding the economic sanctions, President Trump has alluded to what he calls Phase Two if the DPRK fails to denuclearize. Phase Two has been widely interpreted as a military strike, although the Trump Administration has not explicitly said that. Incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton are both widely seen as hawks on North Korean policy.
Moreover, the Trump Administration has now also made it clear what preconditions need to be met for the summit to go ahead. First, Pyongyang must refrain from any new missile or atomic bomb tests. Secondly, it must not object to the previously scheduled U.S.-South Korean military exercises and, finally, it must confirm that denuclearization is on the agenda for negotiation.
So far, it appears that North Korea is complying with the first two preconditions. The last North Korean missile test was on November 28, 2017, while the last atomic bomb test was on September 3, 2017. Likewise, although Pyongyang did criticize the U.S.-South Korean military exercises, those criticisms were mild by historical standards.
Recent satellite imagery suggests that Pyongyang may be in the process of bringing a new reactor online, believed capable of producing plutonium. It's not clear if this action might cause the White House to scuttle the proposed summit.
The North Korean government has confirmed in talks with its South Korean counterparts, and in Kim's meeting with Chinese President Xi, that it is willing to discuss "the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" at the Trump-Kim summit. The White House has now confirmed that North Korean diplomats have expressed the same willingness to US government officials participating in the US-North Korea talks. Pyongyang has been vague, however, about how it defines denuclearization.
According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, Kim declared in Beijing that, "the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace."
At the very least, Kim's comments suggest that any dismantling of the North Korean nuclear missile program would proceed in tandem with an easing of economic sanctions and other concessions from the U.S. and South Korea and not as a precondition to a change in U.S. policy. That already runs counter to the declared objectives of the Trump administration.
Moreover, there is a larger issue over what denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula actually means. North Korea has offered a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula before. The 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was an agreement between North Korea and South Korea where each side agreed to "not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons."
The agreement followed the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea by the U.S. in 1991.
Moreover, the agreement also specified that neither country would possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.
Since then, notwithstanding the agreement, North Korea has conducted more than 117 nuclear missile tests and six nuclear bomb detonations.
Since 2006, when North Korea exploded its first atomic device, there have been numerous instances when Pyongyang announced that it was preparing to shut down its nuclear program.
In 2007, as part of the Six Party Talks (2003-2008) between North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China the U.S. and Japan, North Korea agreed to disclose its nuclear weapon development activities, disable its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and agreed to inspections by the international Atomic Energy Agency. The agreement fell apart in 2009, when Pyongyang tested a new missile and, later, an atomic device.
North Korea made substantially the same offer in February 2012, in return for a normalization of its relationship with the U.S. and the provision of humanitarian food aid. Two months later, that agreement also fell apart when Pyongyang conducted a long-range missile test in April of that same year.
In the past, Pyongyang has defined denuclearization of the peninsula as entailing not only the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear missile program but also the removal of any atomic weapons that the U.S. had in South Korea or any of the surrounding regions.
Moreover, the North has also claimed that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula meant that South Korea and Japan would no longer be under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, regardless of where those atomic weapons were physically located.
This provision would require the abrogation of the U.S. security agreements with South Korea and Japan, an option that has been rejected out of hand by every American president and which would have far reaching consequences for the U.S. position in East Asia and elsewhere.
The Road Ahead
Given the history of negotiations with North Korea it is hard to be optimistic that the proposed Trump-Kim summit will lead to a breakthrough. Pyongyang has been vague about what exactly it wants and what it is prepared to give up. If past statements are a guide, its definition of what would constitute denuclearization would be unacceptable to the U.S. and its East Asian allies.
Likewise, the U.S. has been clear that Pyongyang's dismantling of its nuclear program is a precondition for the establishment of normal diplomatic relations with the U.S., the elimination of economic sanctions or the provision of humanitarian aid.
It is hard to believe that Pyongyang would agree to these terms. After all, it is precisely its nuclear missile program that has made a U.S.-North Korea summit possible and enhanced its diplomatic clout with its East Asian neighbors.
Economic sanctions have certainly weighed heavily on North Korea. That may be an inducement to give up its nuclear program, although Pyongyang has shown in the past that it can and will impose significant hardships on the North Korean people in pursuit of its nuclear ambitions.
Even if the Trump-Kim summit is cancelled or if it fails to produce a resolution to the current crisis, that does not mean that only a military solution is left. The economic sanctions are imposing a significant economic cost on North Korea and they can be tightened even more. A Chinese orchestrated regime change is not outside the realm of possibility. Eventually, Kim Jong-un may realize that he has no other options left but to give up his nuclear program.
What is clear, however, is that given North Korea's past behavior, any resolution that decreases the economic and military pressure on North Korea before there is a verified and enforceable denuclearization will simply give Pyongyang the maneuvering room to continue with its program while getting relief from the UN mandated economic sanctions.
Promises of North Korea's good behavior in return for concessions from the U.S. have not worked in the past and there is no reason to expect them to work in the future. As a candidate, Donald Trump sharply criticized the Obama Administration's nuclear deal with Iran for precisely those shortcomings. Here's hoping as president, Donald Trump doesn't make the same mistake.
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