Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

Trump-Kim meet: what prospects?

15 MARCH 2018: AS North Korea and the United States talk of a summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un - and the reins of the State Department move into hawkish hands - opinion has oscillated between optimism and prospects of peace, and scepticism rooted in the belief Trump is being skilfully played.

Taking the latter view, Jeffrey Lewis writes in The Washington Post, "... when Trump agreed to a summit, he unwittingly cast himself in what may well be another installment of the propaganda series, one in which North Korea’s testing of both thermonuclear weapons and missiles that can strike the U.S. has compelled an American president to come to Kim Jong Un and recognize North Korea as a nuclear-armed power."

The newspaper continues, "And yet, North Korea has not offered to abandon its nuclear weapons — nor does it seem likely to do so. The whole process of how this visit has come about is so strange that it raises questions about whether it will really happen at all."

The replacement of dovish Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State by hawkish CIA Director Mike Pompeo further complicates matters as the two maintain opposing positions not just on North Korea but other purported US adversaries like Iran. The Washington Post reports Pompeo declaring on 11 March 2018, "Make no mistake about it, while these negotiations are going on, there will be no concessions made." In contrast Tillerson said on record in April 2017, "We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We seek a denuclearized Korean Peninsula."

Rex Tillerson was famously quoted as saying in December 2017 that just sitting down face to face would be a start. "Let’s just meet — we can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face?"

The respected Financial Times points to silence from North Korea since the initial flurry, as particularly ominous. "The silence out of Pyongyang has triggered concerns that the dictatorship may be insincere about its overtures or could again be playing psychological games with its adversaries in a bid to create leverage." The paper believes that any offer of de-nuclearisation may be seen as a "betrayal" by the North Korean people who have been brought up to "cherish" the programme and the seeming strength that emanates from it.

The Korea JoongAng Daily headlined, "Trump knew of Kim's invitation well in advance." The paper continues, "After the North decided to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Washington and Pyongyang began secret contacts, around Jan. 20, the source said. The contacts became more active after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) got information that the North wanted to have a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the opening ceremony in February. The State Department was completely excluded from the process, the source said. Although the North initiated a meeting between Pence and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of leader Kim Jong-un, who visited the South as a special envoy for the Games’ opening ceremony, it called off the meeting just two hours before it was to start."

The Pence snub of the North Korean delegation was touted as a reason for the pullout. Yet there seem to be other factors in this decision. As JoongAng reported: "The source explained that the cancellation was not a rejection of talks with the United States, but a decision to spare Kim Yo-jong an embarrassing position." – Asian Conversations