After months of rhetorical brinkmanship and swapping graphic personal insults, U.S. President Donald Trump said he’s willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un without preconditions and South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in says the aim could be to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. We spoke to an expert on nuclear proliferation to look at the chances of success.
Tom Plant, the director of proliferation and nuclear policy at the defense and security think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said any summit would begin a difficult process which diplomats know as “rapprochement” in which, he said, “the chances of it going wrong are always greater than the chances of it going right.”
WikiTribune: This isn’t the first time the United States and North Korean have engaged in these sort of talks (armscontrol.org). Should we expect a different result this time, and if so, why?
Plant: 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.
WikiTribune: Why are these relationships so problematic?
Plant: 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.
WikiTribune: So this might be the first step to some sort of understanding but not go the whole way to denuclearisation?
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.
WikiTribune: So if both leaders go into the summit with their own set of demands without having laid down the ground rules the whole affair might lead dissolve into pandemonium?
That’s absolutely bang on.
WikiTribune: 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.
WikiTribune: Could the Iranian nuclear deal be something decision-makers might be looking to for inspiration?
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-enriched 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.
WikiTribune: This might be too early to say, but do you think Kim Jong-un has outmanoeuvred 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.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Download and read a full transcript of the interview here.