President Donald Trump stunned many observers of the Korean scene with his quick acceptance on March 8 of an offer portrayed by South Korean diplomats as coming from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for a summit meeting. Obviously, such a meeting would set a precedent; no sitting American president has ever directly met a North Korean leader. It is also unusual because summits usually happen at the end of a protracted diplomatic process, not the start of one.
The decision holds the prospect, though slight, to change the decades-long stalemate on the Korean peninsula. It could force North Korea to at long last clearly say whether it wants to takeover South Korea. It could force South Korea to confront its own desires, or lack thereof, to unify with the North. Or it may simply lead to open yet another long process of negotiations in which North Korea will try to extract money and other incentives from the U.S. and other countries to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Two previous such deals, made in 1994 and 2007, failed.
The news produced a flurry of reaction from longtime observers, analysts and diplomats who have watched North Korea. Here’s a list of important commentaries in the first week:
Victor Cha, a former NSC official in the Bush administration and deputy negotiator during the Six Party Talks a decade ago, was one of the first out of the gate with an op-ed that ran in the New York Times on March 9, the morning after the announcement. Cha was recently passed over as Trump’s appointee as ambassador to South Korea with no explanation from the White House, despite months of work with senior officials on Korea policy. His piece summed up the stakes for the White House, urged coordination with allies and warned that the summit may also raise the risk of armed conflict. Click on this sentence read it.
It took until Wednesday, March 14, for someone to finally point out that something wasn’t right about this whole summit thing: that word of it all came from South Korean officials and that there was no evidence yet that North Korea was really interested. Jung H. Pak of the Brookings Institution wrote that the “content and context of Kim’s ‘offers’ remains unclear.” South Korea has plenty of reason to put the best spin on the meeting its officials had in Pyongyang. But they didn’t deliver a letter from Kim to Trump and North Korean media has said nothing about the prospective meeting. She recommends that the White House begin to lower expectations for the outcome of a summit. Click on this sentence to read her piece.
Nick Eberstadt, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute who has written about North Korea’s economy and human rights situation for years, offered negotiating ideas in a column the Washington Post published on March 9, the day after the summit was announced. Contrary to other Asian cultural and diplomatic habits, the North Koreans don’t believe in win-win outcomes. “A good negotiation ends with North Korea taking everything that’s up for grabs, and also with humiliation or outright disgrace for the other side,” he wrote. He offered tips for the U.S. to not get fleeced. Read them by clicking on this sentence.
Bob Carlin, a former CIA and State Department expert on the Koreas, takes on Eberstadt’s idea in this piece for 38North. Read it by clicking here.
Isaac Stone Fish, a former Asia editor at Foreign Policy who now has a gig with the Asia Society, wrote for the Atlantic’s website on March 11 that what matters above all is that the U.S. and North Korea are taking steps to avoid conflict. The prospect that a third-rate power may embarrass the U.S. and Trump matters less than that. Fish writes: “What really matters here? That Trump cows Kim, cudgeling him and his nation with the threat of American might? That the United States risks war, the decimation of Seoul, a nuclear missile screaming towards Hawaii, and the deaths of millions of North Koreans, just so it doesn’t have to admit that Pyongyang outmaneuvered the Trump administration? Or, instead, that egos are set aside in the pursuit of peace?” Read the rest by clicking on this sentence.
The two most prolific American scholars on North Korea, Steph Haggard and Marcus Noland, are on a break from daily contributions to their indispensable blog, Witness to Transformation. But Haggard posted a short item on March 12 that said the only successful outcome from the summit would be if it set up further negotiations. As Cha wrote in his NYT piece, Haggard said there are only two real positions for the U.S. to take, a step-by-step de-escalation that could be long (and, we note, painful, particularly as they will likely result in the hardball Eberstadt talked about) or a “big deal” that puts a lot more on the table that comes together only when NK has taken big steps itself. He then points to the book he and Noland recently published about strategies and tactics for dealing with North Korea. Read his post by clicking on this sentence.
Stephen Hayes at the Weekly Standard on March 9 tried to suss out North Korea’s reasons for, in spite of all it has said in recent months and years, suddenly wanting to meet with Trump. He begins by saying that it’s possible the moment has come when North Korea will give up its nuclear pursuit, something that has been very costly for the country but that it has stuck to for decades. “But none of that is likely. More than that: it’s almost inconceivable.” Instead, he said he believes North Korea is seeking relief from the sanctions that, under Trump, have become more onerous than in the past. He gives Trump credit for giving up on the diplomacy for the sake of diplomacy strategy of the past. “But choosing to change a failed approach, however laudable, does not guarantee success,” he writes. See his full commentary by clicking on this sentence.
Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation in the Daily Signal on March 9 outlined some of the same steps that Eberstadt said the U.S. should take in dealing with North Korea. He added that Washington should test the sincerity of the Kim regime by getting it to release the three Americans held in prison there. See his op-ed by clicking here.
Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, wrote on The American Conservative website March 14 that the danger of a poor summit is greater than backing out of the summit. If both sides end up walking away from a summit, North Korea is likely to start testing nuclear weapons again, and perhaps more aggressively with atmospheric explosions. Will there be anything left for the U.S. to do but go to war, he asks. Read his commentary by clicking here.
A March 13 column by Bae Myung-bok, a senior columnist at Joong Ang Ilbo, one of South Korea’s largest newspapers, reflects the second thoughts that are being had in Seoul as South Koreans absorb the prospect that big changes could result for them if the U.S. and North Korea negotiated a peaceful resolution to the decades-long conflict. Bae, like many South Koreans, has never believed that Kim Jong Un would give up nuclear weapons. “But his latest moves have shaken my conviction. I am beginning to think he may really be serious about dispensing with nuclear arms and having dialogue with Seoul and Washington. Otherwise, how can he dare propose a one-on-one meeting with the head of the world’s most powerful state?” Read his column in English here.
An editorial on March 12 in the Japan Times, that country’s biggest English-language paper, sums up the shock and ambivalence the Japanese feel about Trump’s hasty decision to meet Kim. The paper says the summit does not make sense. “While we believe that talks should be pursued, talks between officials are very different from a meeting of heads of state … Heads of state close deals, they do not negotiate them.” It says that new ideas are needed to break the Korean stalemate. “But there are bold ideas and there are gambles; this is a gamble and a very risky one indeed.” Read the editorial by clicking here.