Short of President Trump changing his mind — again — the meeting between himself and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looks like it will proceed as originally scheduled in Singapore on (or close to) June 12. North Asia, and the world, should be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Trump’s decision to cancel the meeting could be viewed as having left the North Korean leadership scrambling to appease a president, who again hinted at a military strike within an environment of what might be described as strategic uncertainty. Another perspective, however, might view US policy as a dog’s breakfast.
For those thinking that Trump has been very clever, it’s worth noting that he probably didn’t count on South Korean President Moon Jae-in meeting with North Korea’s Kim within hours of his cancellation of his own meeting. Moon was displeased by Trump not having forewarned him of cancelling the meeting so, being in favour of peace of the Korean Peninsula, he jumped at a chance to meet with Kim.
The immediate consequence of this inter-Korean meeting was that the United States suddenly started to look irrelevant to peace on the peninsula. And, ironically, the despotic dictator Kim came out holding the high moral ground.
So, Trump immediately revived prospects for the Singapore talks by sending one delegation to Panmunjom on the North-South Korean border to discuss the talks agenda, and another team to Singapore to prepare for the meeting.
Sending a delegation to establish the agenda is where most such discussions start. In Trump’s case, however, this is where it has ended up.
Such preparatory talks go to the heart of the process, which is North Korea’s denuclearisation, and economic incentives to help bring that about. What is meant by “denuclearisation” by the US may not be what North Korea envisages.
From a US-South Korea perspective, denuclearisation will mean the verifiable dismantling of all existing nuclear weapons as well as the capability to manufacture them. From North Korea’s perspective, it is more likely to mean the dismantling of existing weapons with perhaps a lower verification threshold and probably a capacity to build new weapons in the future.
Kim Jong-un had, earlier, gone head-to-head in ramping up the rhetoric with the US and, having gotten to the point of talks, can present himself as an “equal” to Trump. Also, having promised the North Korean people economic improvement, he may be able to trade away elements of his nuclear program in exchange for what Trump has described as making North Korea “very rich”. In this, China would act as North Korea’s security guarantor.
If the two leaders do meet, it may be that Trump will bring to bear his “art of the deal” and he and Kim will walk away with something to show their respective constituencies. It may be, however, that even with ground rules established, there remain fundamental sticking points; what might constitute a closer in business terms may not be so in strategic terms.
If no agreement is reached, the default position for both countries is more nuclear posturing. If so, Trump will likely escalate the nuclear threat level in order to save face. Kim can be expected to respond in kind given, beyond humiliation, he would also be facing the possibility of a coup.
But, as Trump has noted, if the talks proceed and are successful, all parties will come away with benefits. It would be better, then, for the talks to not proceed, holding out some hope for the future, rather than they fail here and now.
Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics.