After months of rhetorical brinkmanship and exchanging personal insults, U.S. President Donald Trump said he’s willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in person at a summit without preconditions. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, said that the goal of the meeting is to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
The proposal follows discussions between North and South Korean delegations that took place after the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. South Korea’s national security adviser announced the proposal on late on March 8 during a visit to The White House. President Trump tweeted that “a meeting [is] being planned” but the U.S. has yet to say when and where the summit talks will take place.
If the summit takes place, Trump will become the latest in a succession of U.S. president to try to negotiate a nuclear arrangement with the “Hermit Kingdom.” North Korean nuclear disarmament is a long sought goal of U.S. foreign policy, one which has eluded American leaders for decades.
WikiTribune spoke to Tom Plant, director of proliferation and nuclear policy at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defense and security think tank, who said that any summit, even if successful, would only be the beginning to a difficult process of rapprochement where “the chances of it going wrong are always greater than the chances of it going right.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What we asked
This isn’t the first time the U.S. and engage in these sort of talks (armscontrol.org). Should we expect a different result this time, and if so, why?
We should hope for a different result. But [we should] be very realistic about the prospect… Given the complexity of the situation in the Korean peninsula, all the different interlocking networks of relationships, a grand bargain is just not going to fix this… You’ve got to accept that a single one of these meeting isn’t going to fix these problems, or even reach a deal on any or all of them. This is a process rather than an end.
Why can these relationships be problematic?
Every party will have red lines that don’t necessarily overlap with the others. So it’s a case of finding small areas where you can make progress now, and then in the future find other areas to make progress and so on to build something productive. But the chances of it going wrong are always greater than the chances of it going right. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be hopeful, it just means we should be realistic.
So this might be the first step to some sort of understanding, but by no means is this indicative of some sort of deal regarding the more visible aspects of this – denuclearisation in North Korea, the halting of its nuclear weapons programme, that sort of thing – being achieved?
I find it hard to imagine. I’m always open to the possibility, and I’d loved to be proved wrong on this, but I just don’t think I’m going to be… I think what’s worth emphasising as well is less the summit and more the process that leads up to it, if it ends up happening at all… What is discussed and even agreed at that summit should be, to a very great extent, have come about beforehand.
So what you’re saying is that if both leaders go into the summit with their own set of demands without having previously laid down the ground rules of what they are going to be discussing, the whole affair might lead devolve into pandemonium?
That’s absolutely bang on.
Why do you think Kim is negotiating now?
In his New Year’s statement, he nodded to the fact that the state-nuclear force was supposed to be complete. I’m not surprised that he’s in dialogue mode now – I hate using this kind of “cycles” argument for North Korea: the strategy of provocation, offering reconciliation and then breaking the deal and starting again. But it does look quite a lot like that. So let’s hope that it’s not this time, but it probably is.
Could the Iranian nuclear deal be something decision-makers might be looking to for inspiration? An arrangement that isn’t perfect but that is enough to satisfy both parties and put them on a track to greater engagement?
If the model of the Iran deal was applied to North Korea, then the U.S. and its allies would be pretty happy because the amount of access involved would far beyond anything North Korea has committed to do. The difference with the Iran deal is that it’s not quite the same because Iran never produced nuclear weapons or fissile material, like highly enriched uranium. It did produce low-enrichened uranium. So there are differences there. But let’s just say that North Korea somehow rolled back to the state Iran is in now. To me, that looks like a win. The North has never been willing to offer even anything approaching that level of transparency or verification. It’s not even been willing to offer the level of transparency associated with verification in countries that are not under the same scrutiny as Iran, so there’s just a whole long way for North Korea to be able to accept the provisions. It’s a totally different landscape.
This might be a bit early to say, but do you think Kim Jong-un has outmanouevered Trump on this issue? Sort of applied, if you want, Trump’s “Art of the Deal” against him?
Time will tell. On the summit issue, the U.S. has committed to a meeting at a place and time to be determined. That’s quite vague. I’ve been very critical of Trump and the administration’s messaging about Korea and toward Korea in the past. I don’t think that would be fair this time. I think their response has been OK. Over the last year, Kim Jong-un has played his hand well and the U.S. has played its alliance hand, in particular, poorly. But we’re in a new year now and this is a new situation.
Download and read a full transcript of the interview here.