Commentary: Another Trump-Kim summit will achieve little yet again

BUSAN: The president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, recently called for another summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump has indicated his interest, but the North Koreans definitively rejected it. The US has sent a special representative to South Korea to discuss re-starting negotiations with North Korea, but the prospect appears unlikely.



On Saturday (Jul 3), North Koreas Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui revealed that Pyongyang does not feel the need for a new summit, days after Moon suggested the two leaders meet again before the US elections in November.

READ: Commentary: 70 years after war, inter-Korean relations are back at square one

On Tuesday (Jul 7), Kwon Jong Gun, director general for US affairs at Pyongyang's foreign ministry reiterated this stand while also hitting out at South Korea for meddling in its bilateral affairs with the US. “It is just the time for it to stop meddling in others' affairs but it seems there is no cure or prescription for its bad habit," Kwon said in a statement. “Explicitly speaking once again, we have no intention to sit face to face with the United States.”

This is a disappointing conclusion to several years of negotiation between the US and North Korea.



Back in 2018, hopes were high that the two sides might find a breakthrough. Trump was the first US president willing to meet a North Korean leader. A leader-level summit was long a North Korean demand. The hope was that giving in to that might spark more serious North Korean concessions than previously. That has not been the case unfortunately and undermines the rationale for yet another summit.


The central point of contention between North Korea and US is, of course, the formers possession of nuclear weapons and the intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering those weapons to North America. North Korea achieved this capability in late 2017. It had been working on it for decades.

Long-range nuclear missiles fundamentally change Americas threat perception of North Korea.

Previously North Korea was a troublesome, but distant, rogue state. Pyongyang has long engaged in bad behaviour – terrorism, provocations against Americas ally South Korea, cyber-hacking, overseas assassinations, and so on – but these were always rather far from the US homeland.

FILE PHOTO: A projectile is fired during North Korea's missile tests in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on November 28, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo

Similarly, North Koreas conventional military threat – its very large army and copious short-range missiles – was a threat to Americas regional partners – Japan and South Korea – not the US directly.

This distance gave the US leverage to pursue tougher strategies against North Korea. Former president George W Bush, for example, famously placed North Korea on the “axis of evil.”

But now North Korea has achieved direct nuclear deterrence with the US.'

READ: Commentary: Is North Korea tearing at the seams?

If the US were to launch a regime change operation against North Korea, Pyongyang could attack the US itself with devastating force.

Trumps first response to this was to threaten war. He notoriously threatened “fire and fury” in 2017. But this always felt hollow. Trump risked a North Korean retaliatory nuclear strike on the US mainland if he acted. In the end he did not, and he pivoted to negotiations the following year.


It is these negotiations Moon is trying to restart. But their previous course suggests little would come from another.

Kim and Trump met three times from 2018 to 2019 with little concretely achieved. Trump was heavily criticised for his “photo-op diplomacy” – the pursuit of striking imagery, such as walking around inside North Korea for a few moments, at the expense of a serious deal with Kim.

Kim too seemed mostly interested in the optics – meeting a US president as a peer leader suggested to the world that North Korea is normal, accepted state in the global system. That was a nice public relations coup for him and his country.

READ: Commentary: North Korea is frustrated we are not taking it seriously

But for all the media hype, very little on the ground here has changed. North Korea still has its nukes and missiles and has surrendered nothing. It is still under sanction.

The US and United Nations have not rolled back those punishing measures. And the conventional military stand-off along the demilitarised zone (DMZ) in Korea is still intact. The two Koreas still point an extraordinary amount of force at each other across a very narrow area.

A South Korean soldier stands at a checkpoint on the Tongil bridge near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Hence, for another summit to be meaningful – not an election year gimmick for Trump or a legitimising international theatre for Kim – the following conditions would need to be met.


The core strategic reason for the previous summits failure was the refusal of both sides to offer counter-concessions commensurate to the concessions they were demanding.

In the run-up to the first summit in 2018 in Singapore, the US made the wildly unrealistic demand that North Korea “completely, verifiably, and irreversibly denuclearise” (CVID).

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that same year, several participants and I queried US and South Korean officials, suggesting the North Korea would never accept a demand equivalent to unilateral disarmament, especially as the US was offering only vague commitments to sanctions relief and development aid.

Unsurprisingly, the North rejected CVID out of hand, and the Singapore summit statement was toothless.

In 2019, at the second summit in Hanoi, North Korea made a similarly one-sided demand. It promised to shut down one ageing nuclear reactor in exchange for a total lifting of sanctions.

READ: Commentary: North Korea may have benefited from the pandemic after all

This position was so absurd that Trump walked out of the summit, crashing the whole event. The result of all this poor planning and posturing was yet another empty, third summit at the DMZ later that year.

For a fourth summit to be meaningful then, both sides need to bring a far fuller list of what they are willing to trade away and what they most want to receive from the other side. This would allow real bargaining.


A second failure of the previous summits was their Read More – Source

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