US President Donald Trump’s 50-minute-long meeting on June 30 with Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea, in the Korean Peninsula’s Demilitarised Zone was, in typical Trumpian fashion, good television. But it has the potential to be something much more significant.
While meeting in the thin buffer zone established after the end of the Korean War, the two leaders agreed to resume talks about Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. That may not sound like much. But following March’s failed summit in Hanoi, it could provide the basis for detailed talks between real negotiators, signifying an important step toward reaching an agreement to address the global threat of North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Scepticism is, of course, warranted. Both sides have zigged and zagged on policy since Trump took office. But there are signs that Trump and Kim want a deal. Trump has been pushing for one ever since he came into office — often against the opposition of his advisers. Kim, for his part, appears more interested in developing his country’s economy than in developing more weapons of mass destruction.
Finding compromises will only be possible through face-to-face talks between negotiators, not through tweets, press statements or speeches.
Contrary to popular wisdom, reaching a deal that ends North Korea’s nuclear programme is not impossible. In fact, the outlines for such a deal are fairly well-known. North Korean officials have told former American government officials that a denuclearisation deal would take place in three phases. North Korea would freeze production of nuclear weapons, roll back the bomb stockpile and nuclear programme, and finally eliminate it. Along the way, the United States would eliminate sanctions, open diplomatic liaison relations and conclude a peace agreement to end the Korean War. The agreement reached over the weekend is an essential step in that direction.
But it’s only a first step. That’s because Trump and Kim can’t get there alone. While the two leaders seem to enjoy spectacles like their historic summit in Singapore a year ago and last weekend’s meeting in the DMZ, real progress toward a deal will require them to empower representatives to work out the details — not during one meeting but in days, weeks or perhaps months of direct talks — and then present them to the two leaders for approval. That’s nothing new in dealing with the North Koreans, but it has been missing amid Trump’s focus on summitry.
The Hanoi summit ended with Trump walking away from the negotiating table, but it may nonetheless have provided future negotiators with some foundations. It pinpointed key differences on denuclearisation and sanctions relief, providing a clear focus for renewed talks. When talks resume, bridging this gap will be the negotiators No. 1 priority.
Of course, there are serious pitfalls ahead.
A dysfunctional decision-making process in the White House has allowed opponents of diplomacy to upend the president’s policy. A prime suspect in sabotaging the Hanoi summit by convincing the president to table proposals that were blatantly non-negotiable, John Bolton was conspicuously absent on June 30. He had been sent on an official visit to Mongolia instead, maybe a sign that Trump is wise to his antics.
The North Koreans also need to get their act together. Until now, they have hesitated to talk to the United States outside of high-level summits, perhaps because they thought Kim could best Trump in a one-on-one negotiating match. But they may be having second thoughts given the failure in Hanoi, which provoked pushback from North Korean sceptics of Kim’s initiative. The June 30 agreement may signal that Kim has dealt with those sceptics, at least for the moment, and is now ready to move forward with negotiations.
Reaching a deal will require difficult compromises by both sides. The Trump administration will have to accept a deal that falls short of North Korea giving up all of its weapons right away but that lays out a path to final denuclearisation in phases. The North Koreans will have to accept that they cannot get the comprehensive relief from international sanctions that they want right away. Finding compromises, however, will only be possible through face-to-face talks between negotiators, not through tweets, press statements or speeches.
Even with hard negotiations, the ultimate success of a deal may come back to Trump and Kim. Both leaders have a lot at stake. For Trump, a deal with North Korea would be a foreign policy victory that he could use to stick it to his Democratic presidential rivals, almost all of whom have pooh-poohed his initiative. For Kim, a deal would propel his country forward on a path to economic modernisation while cementing his continued leadership. And what better way to end this season of the Trump-Kim saga than a summit and a deal? It would make for great television.
Joel S. Wit is a Senior Fellow with Stimson Centre, Washington DC and an expert on East Asia security issues