Trump-Kim summit to show real progress

The White House disclosed in Washington on January 19 that President Trump’s second summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “will take place near the end of February”. One month is a very long time in politics but the White House disclosure came at the conclusion of three-day working level talks between senior officials of the US, North Korea and South Korea at a secret location near Stockholm, Sweden.

In particular, the visit to Washington last week by North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator Kim Yong-chul’s and his meeting with Trump, has raised expectations. (Kim’s visit to the US opened the door for the working level negotiations in Sweden.)

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later said in Davos that progress has been made at these talks and he anticipated that they provided a “good marker” for the upcoming summit. As Pompeo put it, “There’s an awful lot of things to be done but some good things have happened already.” He added that there are “many steps along the way to achieve” the goal of North Korea’s denuclearization, while expressing optimism that the next summit will be productive.

The US-North Korea negotiations after the Singapore summit last June had stalled since Pyongyang remained reluctant to “denuclearize” and on its part the US was averse to a step-by-step approach to dismantle the sanctions regime. North Korea has warned that denuclearization could be at risk unless the US eases sanctions, while the US has demanded so far that Pyongyang must first demonstrate its commitment to abandoning the nuclear weapons.

The big question is how this deadlock could be ending. Pompeo’s remarks articulating denuclearization concerns in the same breath as “security and stability and peace on the Peninsula” suggest that the US is gradually shifting its position and is open to embracing the approach of step-by-step concessions. Trump’s upbeat remarks after meeting the North Korean envoy last week lends credence to such a reading.

In the period since the June summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim Jong-un, the latter has consolidated his position. Most importantly, Kim has mended his equations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he visited earlier in January (Kim’s fourth visit to China in the past year), and the relations between the two countries have remarkably improved.

According to Chinese media reports, Kim assured Xi that he is committed to “achieving results” at the second summit with Trump and will “continue sticking to the stance of denuclearization” and “make efforts… to achieve results.” Equally, Xinhua news agency quoted Xi as saying that Pyongyang and Washington would “meet each other half way.”

Equally, the relations between the two Koreas are also proceeding smoothly. It was a measure of Kim’s confidence that in his annual New Year’s speech, the emphasis was heavily placed on his economic programme rather than on threat perceptions.

But the problem lies on the American side. A big campaign is already unfolding with a view to deny Trump the legacy of a successful summit with Kim and a foreign-policy achievement in defusing the North Korea tensions (here and here.) Simply put, North Korea problem has got intertwined with the US domestic politics – like Russia, Syria or Afghanistan. In an editorial comment, Washington Post wrote,

“The North Koreans no doubt hope they can manipulate Mr. Trump into new giveaways at a second summit, such as a relaxation of sanctions, a declaration ending the Korean War, or even the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea… We’d like to hope that Mr. Trump’s advisers, such as Mr. Pompeo, would dissuade him from reckless action; but then, as the president’s recent decision to order U.S. troops out of Syria showed, he’s not inclined to listen. All of which means that a resumption of U.S.-North Korean negotiations should be welcomed — but warily.”

The fact of the matter is that Kim, who has consolidated his position thanks to the backing of Beijing and the prospect of a beneficial economic partnership with South Korea, may well be in a mood to compromise by offering a road map for denuclearization. And if that happens, Trump being highly unpredictable, especially if he is called upon to reciprocate, all bets are off. Indeed, what if Trump reciprocates with the mother of all concessions like withdrawing US troops from South Korea?

Coincidence or not, with just about several weeks left for the Trump-Kim summit, the talks between the US and South Korea regarding the cost-sharing of American military presence in South Korea have reached a deadlock after 10 rounds of intense negotiations since last November. Trump has complained more than once that the US was “subsidizing” the militaries of South Korea. According to Trump, US paid for “about 60 percent” of South Korea’s military costs.

At any rate, through a diplomatic channel, the US demanded in late December that South Korea pay $1.2 billion for costs related to the presence of the 28,500 US soldiers, under a contract valid for one year. The proposal has been framed as an ultimatum from Trump, who stipulated that no offer less than $1 billion would be entertained. Whereas, the South Korean negotiators insist that the amount should not exceed 1 trillion won ($887 million), calling that number “psychologically significant” for the Korean public, and that there should be a five-year contract.

All in all, even if the negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear programme have been exasperatingly slow during the period since the Trump-Kim summit last June in Singapore, it is still better than a hostile standoff or a military confrontation. Without doubt, the Trump-Kim summit created an ambience in which inter-Korean rapprochement could commence, which has since gained traction.

As 2018 ended, the world witnessed the astounding sight of a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new inter-Korean railroad. At the recent talks in Sweden, South Korea actually played a mediatory role between the US and North Korea. If the summit in Singapore was a historic one, real progress can be expected in the upcoming round 2. The South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said last week that the corresponding measures the US may offer in response to North Korean progress toward denuclearization could include “an end-of-war declaration, humanitarian aid, and a permanent channel for dialogue between the US and North Korea.”