July 1, 2019 | News | No Comments
The show goes on. On Sunday, in a bizarre bit of diplomacy that had been proposed on Twitter just a day before, President Trump met the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, at the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean Peninsula. Beyond the D.M.Z., which is four kilometres wide, the two Koreas are technically at war, which is why some twenty-eight thousand American military personnel are still based in South Korea; soldiers, including Americans, have died in flashes of violence in and around the heavily fortified strip of land. Trump nevertheless became the first sitting U.S. President to step into North Korea, the most authoritarian state on earth, which is led by a third-generation tyrant.
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“Good to see you again,” a beaming Kim said, as he greeted the President. “I never expected to meet you in this place.” Trump’s overture to Kim in a tweet on Saturday was, he said, a “very courageous and determined act.”
Trump responded, “Big moment, big moment.” He boasted that “tremendous things” are happening, even though no tangible progress has been made on North Korea’s denuclearization since the leaders’ first summit, a year ago, in Singapore. The second summit, in Hanoi, which took place in February, was a debacle. Trump walked out of those talks. The North Koreans grew cold on diplomacy. The D.M.Z. photo op appears to have been designed to help Kim save face. With cameras rolling, Trump told Kim, “We met and we liked each other from day one, and that was very important.”
The single, modest agreement that emerged from the encounter, which lasted fifty-three minutes, was to resume working group talks next month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in South Korea. Asked if the hastily organized rendezvous (which must have driven the Secret Service nuts) was a gamble, Pompeo responded, “It worked,” and then laughed. But he also conceded that the two sides had not yet made any progress on the issue at the heart of the negotiations—defining what “denuclearization” means. The term was the centerpiece of a modest agreement in Singapore. The United States wants North Korea to surrender all of its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, along with its ballistic missiles, and end all research-and-development programs. In the past, North Korea has called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the Peninsula and a pledge that no nuclear weapons will ever threaten the North.
The resumption of talks was widely welcomed. But analysts with long experience in dealing with North Korea were skeptical about the prospects. “This is diplomacy as a reality show—devoid of substance, purely driven by the pursuit of faux-historic photo ops,” Abraham Denmark, a former East Asia specialist at the Pentagon who now directs the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told me. “By casting a potential summit meeting in the D.M.Z. as a last-minute opportunity to just say ‘Hi,’ President Trump can minimize any expectations of tangible progress but maintain the sense that diplomacy with Kim Jong Un continues.”
At the D.M.Z., Kim agreed to do only what he had already promised in Singapore last year: allow more talks between their teams. “Some will see that as success, others as merely another iteration in the ‘Waiting for Godot’ scenario that represents negotiations with North Korea,” Bruce Klingner, a former C.I.A. deputy division chief for Korea who is now at the Heritage Foundation, told me. “Trump has reaped the fruits of diplomacy without having tilled the soil of making actual progress.” The President has touted progress in the return of American servicemen’s remains from the war, the release of American detainees, and a moratorium on both nuclear and long-range missile tests. “Each of those is good but none is unique, and every one was achieved in greater number or significance during previous U.S. Administrations,” Klingner said.
The impending talks will buy both leaders more time. Trump can counter criticism that he has made little progress in foreign policy, notably in North Korea, his biggest gamble, as the U.S. election cycle begins. Kim “can claim a similar public-relations and propaganda victory,” Frank Aum, a former senior Pentagon adviser, who is now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said. “Each meeting he has with the U.S. President legitimizes the North Korean leader.”
Trump’s embrace of Kim has helped improve the profile of North Korea, which for decades has been an international pariah, among the world’s major powers. Since the President’s second meeting with Kim, in Hanoi, other world leaders have held their own summits with the leader. On June 21st, President Xi Jinping made the first visit to North Korea by a Chinese leader in fourteen years—ever since North Korea began testing nuclear weapons. In May, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, hosted Kim at their first-ever summit, in Vladivostok. “The international coalition to ‘maximize pressure’ on North Korea has dissipated, and Kim today has built significant diplomatic relations with Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow,” Denmark said.
A lot of work remains to get beyond the gamesmanship that has typified the first year of the Trump-Kim flirtation. “If they address the core issues of denuclearization and sanctions relief, rather than just summit logistics or other lower-hanging fruit, then we have the real chance of reaching a breakthrough agreement,” Aum said.
After the talks, Trump said that he was in no hurry. “Speed is not the object,” he told reporters. He described the challenges as “very big stuff—pretty complicated, but not as complicated as people think.” He used similar language in pledging to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, an initiative that stalled after the rollout of an economic plan during a conference in Bahrain this month.
Letting diplomacy drag out carries dangers. “North Korea has presumably used the past twelve months, since Singapore, to continue building its nuclear weapons and ballistic-missiles programs,” Denmark told me. The one bit of progress often cited by Trump is that North Korea has not tested the weaponry that it is building. Many experts believe that Kim will never completely surrender the programs that effectively guarantee the dynasty’s survival. The most viable outcome, some analysts suggest, may be North Korea surrendering some of its bombs and missiles and then freezing its programs, with extensive international verification.
But North Korea’s commitment to diplomacy even on simple issues, such as returning the remains of American service personnel who died during the Korean War, has been put in doubt. More than five thousand are still missing in action in North Korea. (Others are still missing in South Korea). In July, 2018, shortly after the Singapore summit, North Korea returned fifty-five boxes of American remains, then abruptly stopped, despite repeated requests from Washington to fulfill its promise. Over the years, the United States has paid millions of dollars to fund North Korean teams to find American bodies. The boxes returned do not necessarily even represent one body. “Until all are identified, we will not know how commingled the boxes are,” a Pentagon spokesman told me, on Sunday. “Of those, we have identified six service members.” In the past, forensic experts have found animal bones included among returned remains.
En route back to Washington, Trump tweeted, “Leaving South Korea after a wonderful meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Stood on the soil of North Korea, an important statement for all, and a great honor!” But, still, no concrete progress on wresting the world’s deadliest weapons from the world’s most brutal regime.