Inter-Korea summit to pave way for high-stakes Trump-Kim talks

United States President Donald Trump (right) said that Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) for over an hour during his secretive trip to Pyongyang in March.
United States President Donald Trump (right) said that Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) for over an hour during his secretive trip to Pyongyang in March.PHOTO: AFP

GOYANG, SOUTH KOREA - The inter-Korea summit on Friday (April 27) will set the stage for a meeting between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the coming months that could pave the way for a potential denuclearisation of North Korea.

Mr Trump, who has said a meeting could take place by June, told Fox News in an interview on Thursday that Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo met Mr Kim for over an hour during his secretive trip to Pyongyang last month.

"We're doing very well with North Korea," he said. "I haven't given up anything. They've given up - denuclearisation, testing research, they're going to close different sites. They gave it all up before we even asked."

Nonetheless, he reiterated the possibility that discussions could fall through. "It could be that I walk out quickly, with respect. It could be the meeting doesn't take place."

Foreign policy experts this week warned of a treacherous path towards the summit, itself a high-stakes affair that could see regional alliances disrupted and the delicate geo-political balance upset, given the unpredictability of its dialogue partners.

North Korea has never been known to lay its cards on the table, and with Mr Trump's showboating tendencies and preference for unilateralism, analysts said he too may be tempted to go it alone in pursuit of an "America First" security policy.

Dr Michael Green, who is Japan Chair at Washington think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said in response to a question from The Straits Times at the Asan Plenum this week: "This is bigger than the Miss Universe pageant, bigger than pro-wrestling. It will be a big show, and he loves the show."

 
 

His CSIS colleague, Dr Victor Cha, a former White House official once tipped to be Mr Trump's pick as South Korea envoy, told a separate forum there is "no other world leader who President Trump could meet today who could give him more attention than North Korea's".

Even so, Dr Cha was sanguine about the odds of a successful summit. He said: "He doesn't like failure. At the minimum, there will be very positive statements, but we'll see if he tries to get more than that, or something that we haven't seen before."

Experts cautioned against Mr Trump taking the easy road out - such as a quick deal with the North to dismantle its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) but leave in place short- and intermediate-range missiles and conventional weapons that would threaten Japan and South Korea - in a Faustian bargain to use as leverage at mid-term elections in November.

Mr Daniel Russel, a former US diplomat, noted: "A classic feature of North Korean gamesmanship has been to 'divide and conquer', and they could be playing off the five major partners - US, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - against each other."

It is paramount that the five nations "maintain good communications and strategic solidarity" over the issue of ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, he said. This would also avoid a situation of stakeholders feeling they have been left out in the cold during rapid developments.

China is "absolutely crucial" to the success of any US-North Korea negotiations, noted Dr Gary Samore of the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Centre. "If China stops implementing sanctions, then the US has no leverage, and an apparent slippage of Chinese enforcement of sanctions could reflect to some extent China being marginalised in the upcoming negotiations," said Dr Samore.

Professor Moon Chung In, a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae In on foreign policy and national security, also stressed a collaborative effort in a panel discussion on Thursday at the press centre for the inter-Korean Summit.

"Any kind of arrangement between Washington and Pyongyang should be embedded in some form of multi-lateral assurance," he said. "Otherwise, North Korea will not bite what the US offers. It has to be a bilateral agreement with some kind of multilateral system to ensure that agreement will work."

This would safeguard against the possibility of a future administrations reversing course on policies - as Mr Trump had threatened to do with the Iran nuclear deal - which would have "very negative implications on North Korea".

Dr Andrei Lankov of South Korea's Kookmin University, on the other hand, said the US should not promise too much, including protection against regime change.

Citing the example of regime collapse in Libya after it relinquished nuclear arms, he told the Asan Plenum: "I cannot see how the US can guarantee the regime's security against any kind of domestic challenge. Will the US order Marines to go into Pyongyang to shoot down pro-democracy demonstrators?"