Trump Kim Jong-un

There is still some way to go before US President Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and, at this stage, the proposed meeting could still be derailed.

But some scenarios for the meeting — the first face-to-face talks between any leaders of the two nations — are becoming clear.

What we know 

The two leaders will meet in what both regard as neutral territory, such as Switzerland, where Kim was educated, or the Joint Security Area in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, which would have dramatic visual and symbolic impact.

Kim will not venture anywhere he feels insecure or which might portray him as other than at least the equal to the President of the United States, while President Trump will not go to Pyongyang, which would symbolically show Kim as having the upper hand.

The White House has already said that it wants to see “concrete” action from North Korea before the talks can take place. Yet that is precisely what such talks are intended to achieve. North Korea has, however, reportedly said it has halted nuclear and missile tests, which could be taken as a sufficient move to fulfil the “concrete” steps requirement.

The US, and others, will maintain embargoes on trade with North Korea by way of sustaining pressure throughout the talks process. This is a common negotiating tactic which neither side would expect to have altered until or unless there was an agreed outcome.

What to watch 

The US position is that North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons development and long-range missile programs. If this is to be accepted, the US will require verification of the decommissioning of weapons by independent (probably UN) experts. Allowing such experts in to sign off on such a decommissioning would be a huge step for an otherwise secretive North Korea.

While these weapons programs have been the means by which the North Korean leadership legitimises itself, the recent acceleration in their development could be viewed as building a bargaining point with the US and others. As the main bargaining point, North Korea would not give up these weapons without major concessions from the US and South Korea, which is where negotiations are most likely to falter.

North Korea will ask for security guarantees, including the ending of war-gaming and active sea and air patrols in its strategic areas of interest. It will probably also ask for the US to remove its own nuclear capability from South Korea and at least try to have the permanent US military presence in South Korea also ended.

The US might be able to accede to some, perhaps most, of these requirements. However, the US presence in South Korea goes beyond concern with North Korea.

The US presence in South Korea, and in neighboring Japan, also represents a buffer against a strategically more assertive China. North Korean requests that the US abandon this regional posture may therefore run up against resistance for reasons that are not connected to North Korea as such, and this is where the talks could fail.

The US will counter with a promise of withdrawing sanctions, and offering aid and infrastructure support and perhaps even going back to an earlier proposal to assist in developing a civilian nuclear power generator. If there was also some attendant security guarantee for North Korea, perhaps offered by China, this might work.

The catch will be if either of the two somewhat idiosyncratic leaders get frustrated with each other, take offence to overly assertive claims, and abandon the process or, worse, get into another slanging match. For this to be insured against, both leaders will need to be surrounded by strong teams able to moderate the possibility of any excesses of personality.

To date, there has been little evidence of such strong yet conciliatory advisory teams. Without them, the chances of an agreed outcome could hang on a whim.

Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s professor of International Politics.

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