Bulletin columnist Duyeon Kim, who is also an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is in Seoul after covering the meeting of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. In this exchange with Bulletin editor in chief John Mecklin, she answers four key questions arising from the Great Handshake.
John Mecklin: As a matter of substance, the meeting between Trump and Kim produced little but an agreement for the two countries to send teams to begin negotiating again. This agreement could have been made without the two leaders meeting in a big, gaudy public relations event. So why did they meet, in your opinion? And does the meeting have any bearing on whether these new negotiations will be successful?
Duyeon Kim: I actually don’t think an agreement to continue negotiating would have been possible without Trump and Kim communicating directly and agreeing on it. North Korean working-level officials were ghosting the administration’s calls to resume talks during the lull since Hanoi. I was hoping that Trump’s latest love letter would have suggested that they instruct their negotiators to resume talks. We always knew Trump wanted to visit the DMZ because he couldn’t the last time due to poor weather. And then all their stars aligned: Kim sent his birthday letter on the anniversary of the Singapore summit, Trump replied, Trump was going to be here in Seoul anyway, and a “historic” handshake at the DMZ would make the best photo op for two unconventional leaders who love the limelight and a good show. Trump’s Tweet from the G20 was the biggest sign that it was going to happen and under all these circumstances, there was no reason for Kim to stand him up. He would only gain from it, even if it’s just a propaganda victory.
Aside from its only meaningful outcome—the resumption of working-level talks—the entire DMZ event was all theatrics, like a reality TV show. At the same time, symbolism is important for Koreans, both North and South, because they believe symbolism and feel-good, in-person meetings help foster positive moods, build relationships, and foreshadow aspirational images of what could be possible in the future, like normal relations and peace.
But what could be possible is very different from what is possible. And no amount of pageantry can magically solve the serious security issues we face. While Trump and Kim are enjoying their bromance, relations between their countries are still tense. And it all legitimizes Kim, helps prop up his standing at home and abroad. Pyongyang’s state media Rodong Shinmun, aimed domestically, splashed colorful images of the meeting and KCNA aimed internationally heralded the meeting too. So, it’s not far-fetched when critics say Trump is giving Pyongyang too much without making the regime work for it. And, their DMZ date doesn’t necessarily mean it will incentivize Pyongyang to denuclearize. We’ll have to see how things pan out to know whether Sunday was the catalyst to any meaningful negotiations and progress. But future talks will be challenging and even grueling. If Kim doesn’t give his lead negotiator room to negotiate specifically on the nuclear issue, then it will be Hanoi all over again. Before Hanoi, they agreed on practically everything else except denuclearization, because Kim Hyok Chol was unable to comment on the nuclear issue, leaving that for Kim to discuss with Trump. Prior to the Singapore summit, Kim Yong Chol also had little room to negotiate on the nuclear issue.
JM: In the wake of the failure of the Hanoi Summit, it was reported that some of the North Korean negotiators suffered some sort of reprisal, even execution. I don’t think what happened to any of them has been made clear, but it does appear that the upcoming negotiations will be undertaken, from the North’s side, by a different part of the government. Could you explain the difference in negotiation teams for the North, and what that might or might not mean for the upcoming efforts to reach a denuclearization agreement.
DK: Because Kim went home empty-handed after Hanoi and because of the turn of events during the summit, I suspected the center of gravity might shift away from their espionage agency, United Front Department (UFD), and to their Foreign Ministry. We then saw a hint that this might become the case when Pyongyang replaced its spy chief Kim Yong Chol (lead negotiator ahead of the Singapore summit) with Jang Kum Chol in April. But even then, it was still a gut feeling. Then, Secretary Pompeo confirmed this on the plane to reporters, saying their Foreign Ministry will be leading negotiations. But we still haven’t heard which diplomat will face Steve Biegun. North Korean diplomats have always negotiated with the US since the Clinton administration. But for the first time, before the Singapore summit, the UFD took the lead, with Kim Yong Chol at its helm for several reasons. But one was because the communications channel between the two Koreas’ ahead of the Winter Olympics and after was between their intelligence agencies—which is a common method for the two Koreas. Talks leading up to the Singapore summit highlighted the UFD’s natural inexperience dealing with America or any foreign country.
Now that their diplomats will be leading negotiations, American negotiators will find themselves in familiar territory, being among players who know “diplomatic speak,” have experience negotiating with Americans, and are knowledgeable of the issues. Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui are extremely experienced, savvy hands who know the game extremely well. This all means that negotiations on the substantive level will become even trickier if Ri and/or Choe lead talks. But at the end of the day, from North Korea’s point of view, it really doesn’t matter who the lead negotiator is, because they are given strict marching orders and don’t seem to have much negotiating room anyway without Kim’s greenlight.
JM: Obviously, the Trump-Kim meeting happened as the first Democratic presidential debates were being held, and the negotiations over denuclearization will now be going on as the US presidential campaign proceeds. How do you analyze the US election playing into the North Korea situation? Do you think Kim and his government are savvy enough about US politics to try to use Trump’s uncertain reelection prospects as leverage? Do you think it likely they will just slow-walk the negotiations until November 2020, to see who the next president will be? Or will they, in your opinion, try to make the deal with Trump ahead of the election because they think he’s more malleable than any of the likely Democratic challengers would be as president?
DK: I’d think Pyongyang realizes Trump is the only American president who is willing to deal directly with Kim Jong Un, who will break all conventions, and give him what he wants—and then some. So, I’d imagine that the dilemma for Pyongyang would be, how to extract as many big-ticket items as possible before a new president takes office. Or, maybe they’re lighting every candle hoping that Trump gets reelected, who knows. But they certainly don’t have any illusions, either. They’ve experienced enough American presidents, and they see how Washington deals with other foreign policy issues and countries. They know deals can always be overturned by the next president. So, from their perspective, if Trump deals favorably, then I can imagine a scenario in which they cut a deal with Trump to get whatever it is they want for the time being, but knowing very well that the next president might scrap the deal or try to negotiate something different.
When I think of the Trump-Kim dynamic, I can’t help but wonder about a possible, yet debatable, scenario raised by former National Security Advisor Chun Yung-woo, who negotiated two of the three the Six Party Talks agreements: If Kim decides that Trump is the only American president who is willing to strike a deal with him in unconventional ways, then he might determine that it’s worth a couple years of nuclear abstinence disguised in the form of “complete denuclearization”—because they would have hidden stockpiles and already possess nuclear knowledge—to become an economically prosperous and diplomatically normalized state, only to rebuild their nuclear weapons program again and finally reach their goal of becoming a nuclear and economic powerhouse.
JM: In a seven-part Twitter string written after the Trump-Kim meeting, a lengthy piece for The Atlantic and a detailed CNAS report on negotiating a denuclcearization-peace roadmap released ahead of the meeting, you seemed cautiously/guardedly optimistic that an agreement on denuclearization might eventually be reached. Yet many analysts insist that Kim Jong-un will never entirely give up the nuclear arsenal his country has built, because he feels it vital to survival of his regime. So if an agreement is struck, which outcome do you see as more likely: That the United States agrees to an indefinite freeze that lets North Korea keep a small nuclear arsenal? Or that Kim can be persuaded to agree to full denuclearization, even if it is on a very long timetable?
DK: I certainly have no illusions about North Korea. I know Pyongyang believes their nuclear weapons are vital to regime survival and they aren’t going to give them up easily, if at all. But to definitively say that Kim will never give up his nuclear weapons is the same thing as saying you’re not giving diplomatic negotiations a chance. Even if that chance might be 0.0001 percent chance or less, we need to allow negotiations to function properly before calling it quits. There’s enough blame to go around among all parties as to why past negotiations failed over three administrations. Pyongyang certainly is the one that’s been engaged in bad behavior from the start and continues to threaten the US and its allies. But even if a good agreement was struck, like the Agreed Framework, the next president, George W. Bush, scrapped it. And then three good and very comprehensive agreements were reached during the Six Party Talks but the clock ran out on Bush’s term. Plus, Pyongyang has taken advantage of what it sees as America’s strategic weakness: a democratic system lacking policy continuity beset with gaps in historical memory among officials due to political and seasonal rotations of personnel.
I think both Trump and Kim have an interest in striking some sort of agreement. I dare not predict what that will be, because negotiations are fluid and, as the song goes, it ain’t over till it’s over. Their political wills will determine the scope of the next agreement. I go into more detail in my CNAS Report, including how to categorize US and North Korean concessions based on value metrics to help ensure proportionate bargaining and pathways to complete denuclearization and peace. But, all things considered, at the very least, a good outcome within the remainder of Trump’s term, if we’re lucky, would be to agree on a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap that outlines pathways to denuclearization and a peace regime, plus an interim or first-phase implementing agreement on halting fissile material production, but with a clear statement of commitment to denuclearization as the longer-term end goal. Anything more ambitious than this will depend on political will on both sides.
But with all the twists and turns that accompany negotiating with a country like North Korea, perhaps a more realistic outcome might be an agreement on fissile materials with a commitment to denuclearization as the ultimate objective. Seoul and Tokyo won’t be thrilled by a deal that allows Pyongyang to retain some of its nuclear weapons capabilities. And without a clear commitment to denuclearization, it will send the wrong message to the world. But the State Department is faced with the challenge of time, with only about a year and a half left of Trump’s term.
1. 3rd Trump-Kim summit should be in Panmunjeom & sign a real agreement cuz previous optics concerns are now moot as Trump set foot in DMZ & NKorean territory, KJU crossed to SKorean side, Moon included in a photo op & essentially “hosted” providing bilat venue @ Freedom House…
— Duyeon Kim (@duyeonkim) June 30, 2019