In an extraordinary turn of events, the leaders of the United States of America and North Korea are set to meet in person for the first time ever, raising hopes of a diplomatic resolution to the Korean missiles crisis.
South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong announced outside the White House that President Trump and the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, have agreed to meet ‘by May’. Mr Chung further stated that Kim Jong-un had said that he was ‘committed to denuclearisation’, had pledged to suspend further nuclear missile tests while talks were ongoing and understood ‘that the routine joint-military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue’.
The surprise announcement follows confirmation that the third inter-Korean summit since the Korean War ceasefire of 1953 will take place in the demilitarized zone at the village of Panmunjom on the South Korean side between Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in late April. This will also be the first time since the Korean War ceasefire that a North Korean leader has entered South Korean territory.
A combination of factors appear to have led to this surprise announcement. First and foremost has been President Moon’s revival of the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’, where South Korea pursues greater dialogue and improvement of relations with the North. A second key factor has been the diplomacy surrounding North Korea’s recent participation in the Winter Olympics and the Unified Korea women’s ice hockey team. Impressions of the agreement for both nations’ athletes to enter the Opening Ceremony under a unified flag and the significant delegation sent by North Korea to the games, including the high-profile figure of Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, who met with President Moon and passed a handwritten note from her brother, helped build momentum for further North-South dialogue.
A small South Korean delegation, including Mr Chung, subsequently travelled to Pyongyang and briefly met in person with Kim Jong-un (see below). The reception they received, including a surprising degree of autonomy to access foreign and South Korean TV channels, paved the way for the intra-Korean and Trump meeting agreements.
Another factor cited by President Moon as helping make progress in inter-Korean talks has been President Trump. He expressed his wish to attribute ‘big credit’ to Trump for his support of South Korea’s efforts, before adding: ‘it [the Inter-Korea summit]could be the result of US-led sanctions and pressure’.
For the North Korean leader, the diplomatic talks are a major propaganda success as he seeks to present himself as a reasonable, rational actor. The prospect of talks has also significantly eased tensions between the United States and North Korea, which were high in the wake of the North’s latest successful missile tests. Successful negotiations may enable North Korea to be assured against invasion or a pre-emptive American nuclear strike, potentially see the easing of the extremely stringent sanctions placed on the country, and perhaps reduce American military involvement in South Korea. Alternatively, Kim Jong-un may have bought time for North Korea to increase the range and reliability of the nuclear missiles it has already developed – the country has previously agreed to stop developing its nuclear programme, but subsequently reneged.
For President Moon, the agreement for a meeting between Trump and Kim ‘came like a miracle’. Combined with the inter-Korean summit, it may help defuse tensions, lead to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and possibly even a formal peace settlement between North and South.
While the aims and gains to be made from the latest diplomatic efforts for Trump seem to overlap with those of President Moon, there is also undoubtedly a chance to boost Trump’s domestic approval ratings, bolster his statesman-like image, and potentially, if agreement is reached for North Korea to denuclearise, receive the Nobel Peace Prize (like his predecessor in the Oval Office).
While it seems all parties the world over have welcomed the prospect of a meeting between Trump and Kim, emphasis at this point may be best placed on the word ‘prospect’.
There is significant scope for diplomatic efforts to collapse, the meeting to be called off and a return to high-stakes brinkmanship. Trump may have previously expressed his willingness to meet and eat with Kim Jong-un a cheeseburger, but he’s also repeatedly insulted the North Korean leader, often referring to him as ‘Little Rocket Man’. Kim Jong-un meanwhile, has returned the favour, calling Trump a ‘dotard’ and on 20 February North Korea’s state newspaper Rodong Sinmun published an editorial stating that Trump’s words are ‘as a shriek made by the mentally deranged man’.
Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
Even more symbolic of the still-existing chasm of differences between North and South Korea was the failure just yesterday to agree for both nations’ Winter Paralympic athletes to enter the opening ceremony together. This was due to a dispute over the Unified Korea flag – South Korea refused the North’s request to include disputed islands with Japan on the flag.
Only time will tell if Trump and Kim do end up meeting face-to-face.