Summit to pave way for high-stakes talks between Trump, Kim

Visitors at a South Korean observatory near the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas peering at North Korea through binoculars on Thursday.
Visitors at a South Korean observatory near the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas peering at North Korea through binoculars on Thursday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US-N. Korea summit could disrupt regional alliances, upset geopolitical balance: Experts

The inter-Korea summit today will set the stage for a meeting between US 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 yesterday that Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo met Mr Kim for over an hour during his secretive trip to Pyongyang last month.

"We are doing very well with North Korea," said Mr Trump. "I have not given up anything. They have given up - denuclearisation, testing research, they are 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 Trump-Kim summit, itself a high-stakes affair that could see regional alliances disrupted and the geopolitical 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 that there is "no other world leader President Trump could meet today who could give him more attention than North Korea's".

Experts cautioned against Mr Trump taking the easy road out - such as a quick deal with the North to dismantle its intercontinental ballistic missiles 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 it could be playing off the five major partners - the United States, 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 that 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, stressed a collaborative effort in a panel discussion on Thursday at the press centre for the summit. "Any kind of arrangement between Washington and Pyongyang should be embedded in some form of multilateral 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 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".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2018, with the headline 'Summit to pave way for high-stakes talks between Trump, Kim'. Print Edition | Subscribe