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Trump to meet 'Rocket Man'

13 March 2018

Trump agrees to meet “Rocket Man’

Developments on the Korean peninsula are suddenly moving at breakneck speed. Following the Olympic detente, President Kim Jong-Un hosted a dinner for a high-ranking South Korean delegation in Pyongyang on 5 March. He told his startled guests that North Korea was committed to denuclearisation and, for as long as dialogue continued, the North would refrain from further missile or nuclear tests. But the most surprising bombshell was that Kim also said he was eager to meet with the President Trump as soon as possible. The South Korea delegation rushed to Washington to inform Trump who, without consulting anyone, immediately accepted the invitation.

Impact of sanctions

Moon’s special envoys, Chung Eui-Yong, chief of the presidential national security office and Suh Hoon, head of the National Intelligence Agency, were the first South Korean officials to meet the North Korean leader since he took office in 2011. Chung ensured that his trip was made in close consultation with H.R. McMaster, his US counterpart. The talks were supposed to prepare a possible third inter-Korean summit – the first in 10 years – and no one was prepared for the North Korean initiative with the US.

Despite the thaw in inter-Korean relations over the last two months it was far from clear whether North Korea would be willing to discuss denuclearisation, the condition the US have laid down for the start of talks. Pyongyang regards its nuclear arsenal as a matter of national interest and has repeatedly said that it would not accept any preconditions for talks with the ROK or US. A clause about North Korea being a nuclear weapon state was added to the constitution in April 2012 and one year later the Korean Workers’ Party officially adopted the “two-track course” of simultaneously developing the economy and nuclear weapons. Thus Kim’s concessions went further than expected and have to be seen against the backdrop of an unprecedented international sanctions regime that has been tightened since Trump came to power. South Korea specifically referred to Trump’s tough approach to the DPRK as a reason for the breakthrough.

ROK-US military drills

Less than a month after Kim Jong-Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, visited the opening of the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang and extended an invitation to Moon Jae-In, both sides agreed to meet at the end of April. That could be during the joint ROK-US military exercises which have been postponed until after the Paralympics. Chung, in his statement at the White House on 8 March, said that Kim Jong-Un ‘understood the necessity’ of the exercises. (The reason why the Northern regime regards the annual display of military power with such suspicion is because any US-led military strike against the Northern regime would have to take place directly before, during or after the exercises, since the relocation of military material and troops would otherwise be too obvious.) On the same day the US Defence Ministry announced an unusual downscale of the exercises in that unlike previous years no aircraft carrier – and possibly no submarines – will be involved.

The summit will be held at the House of Peace on the Korean side of Panmunjeom, where the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. While the last two summits took place in Pyongyang, this time both leaders will shake hands on South Korean territory. It will be the first time that the North Korean leader actually meets with a head of state since the 34-year old took office six years ago. In a meeting with the chiefs of the five main political parties at the Blue House on 7 March, Moon Jae-In emphasized that there had been no additional secret meetings or side deals related to the agreement to hold a summit.

What, where and when?

The Trump-Kim summit is supposed to take place before the end of May, and will take into account the inter-Korean summit outcome. No decision has been made on the venue. Beijing has been proposed as it hosted the Six Party talks but North Korea distrusts the China and relations are bad. The South Korean island of Jiju has been mentioned but it is doubtful that Kim Jong-un would wish to have a summit on South Korean soil. Apparently he did say that he was prepared to travel to the US but receiving Kim in the White House without an assured outcome might be a step too far for Trump. An alternative might be Switzerland where Kim went to school.

There has been no announcement of an agenda and Trump has come in for some criticism for agreeing to meet Kim without any preconditions. The White House has said that it expects Pyongyang to take ‘concrete measures’ without specifying them. Trump seems to appreciate there are risks involved but is ready to take the gamble of his ability to make a deal. North Korea will seek a security guarantee and an end to sanctions while the US will demand full and comprehensive nuclear disarmament. It will certainly not be easy to agree a deal.

There have been no significant negotiations between the US and North Korea since 2012 when both states announced an agreement which was dubbed the “Leap Day Deal” as it was reached on 29 February 2012, less than two months after Kim Jong-Un came to power. Negotiations had been going on for two years, before the North agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and to international inspections. Like other deals before, this one failed as well – despite its meticulous planning.

A meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un would be the first ever between leaders of the two countries, yet there will be only a couple of months to prepare. Even more pressing is the question who Trump will actually send to prepare the summit. The US has no ambassador to South Korea and Joseph Yun, the US State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, has just retired. Trump may call on Secretary of State, Tillerson, who was blindsided by the announcement, or HR McMaster.

International Reactions

China and Japan, who have been cautious about the Olympic détente, both welcomed this week’s developments. Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe said on 9 March he “highly appreciated the surprise announcement” and planned to visit Trump as early as April. In Beijing the foreign ministry stated that the Korean peninsula issue was heading in the right direction and called on all sides for ‘political courage’. Moscow also welcomed the announcement.

Mogherini said the EU was encouraged by the latest developments and looking forward to discussing them with the South Korean Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-Wha, who will attend the Foreign Affairs Council on 19 March