As the Trump-Kim summit looms, there is still a lot of things that could derail the long-awaited meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Originally scheduled to be held on June12 in Singapore, Trump, in a fit of insecurity abruptly cancelled the meeting last May 25. In a letter to Kim Jong-un, he said he was “very much looking forward to being there with you. Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.” He told Kim, “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed embarrassment and disappointment over the cancellation. He was not advised considering that he was at the White House last May 22. At their meeting in the Oval Office, Moon told Trump that he believed Kim Jong-un was “serious” about denuclearization but wasn’t sure if the June 12 summit would work out.
In a secret meeting last May 26 in Panmunjom north of the DMZ, Moon and Kim agreed that a Trump-Kim summit must proceed. Kim reaffirmed his commitment to “complete” denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, this doesn’t mean that he’d readily agree to denuclearization at the summit. Many experts on North Korea believe that Kim will never agree to denuclearization.
At the same time, a U.S. delegation went to North Korea for preparatory talks ahead of the June 12 summit. U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim led the delegation. The 58-year old diplomat was born in Seoul. He was a former ambassador to South Korea and former nuclear negotiator with North Korea.
If some form of a peace agreement is fashioned, Trump could do what then President Richard Nixon did in 1972. Against the advice of many, Nixon went to China to convince Mao Zedong to open China to the rest of the world. Using ping-pong diplomacy, Nixon succeeded in doing so. It brought trade opportunities and within 30 years, China became an economic power next only to the U.S.
But North Korea is different. It is a small feudal country that doesn’t have the means to industrialize, unlike China who was able to attract foreign investors like the U.S. and Japan. China also has a large pool of workers. North Korea is so poor that its population lives in hunger and starvation. Its communist government is more preoccupied with building and maintaining a large army in the belief that war with South Korea is inevitable. And with little financial means, it embarked on an aggressive research and development of nuclear weapons, thus depleting North Korea’s meager financial resources.
The ruling Kim family’s preoccupation with nuclear development was probably born out of paranoiac belief that South Korea backed by the U.S. would eventually invade the north. The fact that the two Koreas are technically still at war, North Koreans have to be alert at all times, prepared to go to war. And so does South Korea.
The Kim family’s reign
When Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung took power in 1948, North Korea became a communist state with a publicly owned and planned economy. It had close political and economic relations with the Soviet Union. By the 1960s, North Korea enjoyed a relatively high standard of living, outperforming the South.
However, North Korea depended on the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc for funds and subsidies. But the funds and subsidies stopped when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The resulting loss of economic aid adversely affected the North’s economy, causing widespread famine in 1994.
When Kim Il-sung passed away in 1994, his son Kim Jong-il succeeded him. Kim Jong-il’s reign, like his father’s, was characterized as a totalitarian state with widespread human rights abuses, including mass executions and prison camps. The country suffered from a famine. He involved his country in state terrorism and strengthened the role of the military, which had more than two million personnel.
Upon Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, his third son, Kim Jong-un, succeeded him. Kim Jong-un was young in his early 30’s. But he is brutal. In 2013, Kim Jong-un reportedly ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek for “treachery.” It was also rumored that he ordered the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia in February 2017. Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, North Korea aggressively pursued the development of nuclear weapons. North Korea sees nuclear deterrence as vital to its survival.
According to RAND Corporation, Kim Jong-un believes that nuclear weapons are his guarantee of regime survival. During the 7th Congress of the WPK in 2016, Kim Jong-un stated that North Korea would “not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade on our sovereignty.” However, on other occasions, North Korea had threatened “pre-emptive” nuclear attacks against a US-led attack. In December 2015, Kim stated that his family “turned the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] into a powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate a self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb to reliably defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation.” In January 2018, estimates of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal ranged between 15 and 60 bombs, probably including hydrogen bombs. Some analysts say that Korea has developed a long-range missile, the Hwasong-15, which is capable of striking anywhere in the United States. It is also believed that North Korea has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead. No other nation has that.
With the summit date getting closer, a CIA report was released saying that a U.S. intelligence assessment has concluded that North Korea does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons any time soon. According to the CIA analysis, possible North Korea concessions included the possibility that North Korea may offer to open a Western hamburger franchise in Pyongyang as a “show of goodwill.”
With that intelligence report, it would be interesting to see how Trump would pursue his goal of denuclearization of North Korea. As expected, Kim would reject Trump’s proposal. But Trump, famous for his ”Art of the Deal” book, would have the biggest challenge to his reputation as the guru of deal making. But if he chooses to borrow a page from the Godfather, Vito Corleone, he’d gamble on making an offer, Kim cannot refuse. And if Kim responds positively, Trump would only have one chance to make an offer. The question is: what would he offer?
Let’s start with something like a three-nation (U.S., North Korea, and South Korea) non-aggression pact and ending the state of war between the two Koreas. He can also offer economic concessions, which would include a trade agreement and infrastructure financing to develop North Korea’s manufacturing industry. He can also offer low-interest development aid and loans. Sounds enticing?
But Kim would probably ask for more, such as development aid and loans from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund to jump-start North Korea’s economic revival. He’d probably also ask for the U.S. to guarantee opening the American market to North Korean exports. Kim would probably ask for an ironclad United Nations Security Council guarantee to protect the independence and territorial integrity of North Korea. And this is where it could make or break the deal. The question is: Is Trump prepared to pay a stiff price to achieve denuclearization? If not, then they can both go home and promise to meet again in the future.
And in a gesture of goodwill, they can present each other a gift. Trump would probably present a bottle of California Zinfandel while Kim would present a jar of kimchi. And as a gesture of friendship, they could drink the Zinfandel and partake in the gastronomic delight of kimchi. That would certainly add a flair of Kimchi Diplomacy to the summit. Who knows, they might soften their stands and come to an agreement.