March 13, 2018
In remarks before the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017 President Trump said that the scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes. On top of his list were North Korea and Iran. He made no distinction between the two. He accused Pyongyang of a reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and called the Iran nuclear deal one of the worst and most one-sided transactions in U.S. history. He said, “the United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, it will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Six months later, Republic of Korea’s National Security Advisor Chung Eui-Yong, after his meeting with President Trump, announced that,
- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he is committed to denuclearization;
- Kim pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests;
- He understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue;
- He was eager to meet President Trump as soon as possible; and,
- President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.
Later Mr. Trump tweeted, “The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the World. Time and place to be determined.” At the rally for a Republican congressional candidate last Saturday, he mentioned the possibility of making “the greatest deal for the world.”
Some observers immediately said that Washington would now wait for an official invitation by Pyongyang. Firstly, the U.S. and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations. And secondly, there is no need for such an invitation anyway because President Trump will not be travelling to North Korean territory. Therefore, the details of the meeting can be settled through diplomatic channels via third parties.
However, it seems that not everything is crystal clear yet. Because, “We have not seen nor received an official response from the North Korean regime regarding the North Korea-US summit,” a spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of Unification said on Monday. “I feel they’re approaching this matter with caution and they need time to organize their stance.” This is surprising since Mr. Chung Eui-Yong’s White House statement gave the impression that, with Mr. Trump giving the green light, the summit was a done deal except the date and the venue.
Reaction to the prospect of a U.S.-DPRK summit has been mixed. What is clear is that President Trump agreed to meet Kim Jung-un without consulting his foreign and security policy establishment. The Korean leader, on the other hand, must have given his initiative much thought.
At the end of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in early July 2017, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries had issued a press statement on the resolution of the Korean peninsula issue. This statement contained a joint initiative based on the Chinese-proposed ideas of “double freezing” (missile and nuclear activities by the DPRK and large-scale joint exercises by the U.S. and the Republic of Korea) and “parallel advancement” towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
At first glance, Chung Eui-Yong’s White House statement goes even beyond the Chinese-Russian proposal and appears to carry all the elements of a deal.
The fundamental question is what President Kim’s “commitment to denuclearization” means. Because, in the past, North Korea had again committed itself to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing programs, returning to the NPT and accepting IAEA inspections.
The second question is where China stands in all of this. Is it possible that Pyongyang proposed a U.S.-North Korea summit without consulting China? Wouldn’t China prefer the resolution of the problem through a process where it plays a central role? Will the Trump-Kim summit be followed by six-party talks attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. as it was done until 2009 when North Korea decided to no longer participate? After all, North Korea’s nuclear program is not a bilateral issue, and neither was Iran’s though Mr. Trump pretends that it is.
Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula remains a very long shot far beyond Mr. Trump’s deal making capacity and his patience span. Soon, he may be back to “fire and fury”.
As expected, Mr. Tillerson has now joined a long list of administration appointees who have left or been fired, including the President Trump’s national security adviser, chief of staff, chief strategist, press secretary and secretary of health and human services. Only six months ago, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Mr. Trump had written on Twitter.
In mid-February, Secretary Tillerson had visited Ankara and met with President Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. Since there was nobody else in the room other than the three at the Presidential Palace, there could be no proper record of the meeting. With Mr. Tillerson gone, Ankara and Washington may have to start all over again.