On Thursday evening, the White House announced President Donald Trump accepted an invitation to meet with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un to have direct talks before May. The meeting has potential to thaw icy relations between the two countries, but a failure in talks could also push the two countries closer to war and be disastrous for the Korean Peninsula.
South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong, who met with Kim earlier this week and made the announcement at the White House Thursday, said North Korea promises to “refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests.” He said Pyongyang also is committed to denuclearization, and will allow the United States and South Korea to conduct their annual joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula. The Foal Eagle exercise — which North Korea has often condemned and used as an excuse for provocative missile and nuclear tests — will begin on March 31 and last for two months, ABC News reported.
The exact timing and location has not yet been confirmed, but this will be the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader — a major diplomatic breakthrough. This also may be one of the greatest U.S. foreign policy challenges, and there are a lot of obstacles in the way.
First, May is only two months away. That’s not a lot of time to determine what U.S. strategy will be in the meeting, and whether it will be part of a longer series of negotiations.
On a background call Thursday night, a senior Trump administration official did not clarify the timeline or how long the United States is committed to talking with North Korea. “At this point we’re not even talking about negotiations, right?” the official said, after a question about whether talks would include inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities. “What we’re talking about is an invitation by the leader of North Korea to meet face to face with the President of the United States.”
Diplomacy is hard, and it takes a lot of time. Direct talks can help, but everything won’t be solved in one meeting. Take a look at the Iranian nuclear negotiations under former President Barack Obama as just one example. A historic phone call between Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani took place in September 2013. The final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) tackling Iran’s nuclear program — more commonly known as the Iran deal — was finalized in August 2015. That’s nearly two years of talks.
The Trump administration hasn’t made any indication that it’s willing to invest that amount of time in tackling North Korea, having rebuffed past opportunities for outreach. During the Olympic Games, Vice President Mike Pence refused to shake hands with Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, and scheduled talks between between the two of them were canceled.
Second, there are a lot of questions about what the United States is demanding and what it is willing to give up in the push and pull of diplomacy. As Victor Cha — a former Trump administration candidate to be ambassador to South Korea — pointed out, the next steps are determining what the United States is willing to put on the table in diplomatic talks. “Sanctions? Normalization? Peace treaty?”
“In years of dealing with North Korea, I have learned that the regime never gives anything away for free,” he wrote in the New York Times. “To the extent that this administration has thought about diplomacy during its first year in office, it went no further than listing the things that the United States would not do in future negotiations — for example, not give up sanctions, not pay for meetings, not make the mistakes of past negotiations. Yet, what was distinct about the South Korean statement on Thursday was its description of conciliatory measures that Mr. Kim appears willing to take — a missile-test freeze, no response to American military exercises, and an invitation for a summit — but no detail on what Mr. Trump would be willing to offer in return.”
Cha’s right. A senior Trump administration official said on Thursday that the United States will continue applying “sanctions and maxium pressure” on North Korea. To date, that seems like the bulk of U.S. strategy on North Korea, in addition to the overheated rhetoric. Don’t forget that during his first speech at the United Nations General Assembly last September, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” the entire country. Referring to Kim Jong Un, he said, “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
What does North Korea want in exchange for denuclearization? And what is Trump willing to offer? How should the United States address denuclearization and also address North Korea’s human rights abuses? Without a more robust U.S. strategy in place, this meeting simply won’t be fruitful.
Another big obstacle: there are key diplomats missing in the State Department.
There has been no U.S. ambassador to South Korea for more than a year. Cha, whose nomination for the position was withdrawn in January, has vocally opposed a pre-emptive U.S. “bloody nose” strike against North Korea. Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, who has helped implement U.S. strategy and maintained limited bilateral relations between the two countries, also announced his surprise retirement late last month. Yun helped to secure the release of Otto Warmbier, an American college student detained by North Korea security services on a visit to the country. Trump officially nominated Susan Thornton as the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, where she’s been serving in the role in an acting capacity for a year, but the Senate has yet to confirm her.
These are a lot of obstacles for a president who, despite insisting he is good at making deals, is actually much better at demolishing them. To date, Trump has left the Paris climate accord, threatened to undo the Iranian nuclear agreement, called for a withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and on Thursday, announced new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, to the dismay of U.S. allies.
With additional reporting from Esther Yu Hsi Lee.