The View From Asia

Should we trust Kim on talks? And will Trump be ready?

Asia News Network commentators look at the factors that will decide the fate of likely talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Failure of past deals lingers

Yeo Jun Suk
The Korea Herald, South Korea

Just two months after North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un succeeded his father Kim Jong Il in February 2012, a glimmer of hope emerged in Washington that the young leader would signal an end to the nuclear standoff.

In what is dubbed the Leap Day deal announced on Feb 29, the North agreed to suspend nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment. It also allowed international inspectors to monitor activities at its main nuclear complex. But the sense of optimism was short-lived. Weeks after the agreement, North Korea held a satellite launch to send the Kwangmyongsong-3 into orbit. Pyongyang followed that up with a successful launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2 in December 2012 and a nuclear test three months later.

The Leap Day deal is seen as a reminder of unsuccessful nuclear talks between the two countries. It raises the question of whether the proposed summit will be different from past negotiations.

Hopes are high for a possible breakthrough in the decades long nuclear stand-off between Pyongyang and Washington, as US President Donald Trump accepted an invitation for a meeting with Kim Jong Un to be held by May.

Faced with harsh economic sanctions, Mr Kim would be more sincere about the talks with the US compared with negotiations that took place under his predecessors, given that Mr Kim now holds more sway over the country than when he inherited it from his father in 2012, experts said.

DIFFERENT FROM THE PAST

The sanctions are biting and North Korea is more isolated now than in the past. This, I believe, explains why Kim Jong Un reached out to South Korea and why he wants talks with the US.

MR JOSEPH DETRANI, a former US special envoy to the six-party talks with North Korea.

"The sanctions are biting and North Korea is more isolated now than in the past. This, I believe, explains why Kim Jong Un reached out to South Korea and why he wants talks with the US," said Mr Joseph DeTrani, a former US special envoy to the six-party talks with North Korea. "Given that this is a leadership meeting, it's fair to assume that they will be productive, at least in an agreement on issues related to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and on security assurances for North Korea."

South Korea's National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon, who met Mr Kim during his trip to Pyongyang after the PyeongChang Olympics, told local daily Chosun Ilbo that Mr Kim appeared to be trying to lay out a "big vision" for this year regarding the nuclear issue.


News of Mr Donald Trump and Mr Kim Jong Un in South Korean daily Munhwa Ilbo. According to The Korea Herald, hopes are high for a possible breakthrough in the decades long nuclear stand-off between Pyongyang and Washington although the failure of past deals hangs over the upcoming talks. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

When he served as a university professor before becoming the spy agency's chief, Mr Suh suspected that Mr Kim's decision to walk away from the Leap Day deal stemmed from the fact that the young leader needed to appease hawkish generals as he had not yet consolidated his power.

But the scepticism persists that the meeting may be the same as the previous failed negotiations as North Korea has continued to use the end of the US' "hostile policy" as a condition for giving up its nuclear and missile programs.


Meeting faces hurdles

Fan Jishe
China Daily, China

US-DPRK exchanges in the past have been subject to frequent hassles. Things could change faster than expected. And even if Mr Kim and Mr Trump were to meet in May, provided there are no setbacks, the meeting might not yield bold positive results.

The first question is whether Mr Trump's team is ready for the proposed meeting. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has been removed from the office . So it will not be easy for Mr Trump to assemble a team of Korean Peninsula experts in two months.

 

Before former US president Barack Obama negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran, his administration had already drafted a detailed and technical agreement. The other important question is: What would the two leaders talk about? Both are expected to deliver something to the international and their respective domestic audiences. Pyongyang has indicated its willingness to talk about denuclearisation and to refrain from conducting any more nuclear or missile tests, but Mr Trump wants the DPRK to match its promises with concrete and verifiable actions.

How to define and verify "concrete actions"? These talking points sound familiar to veteran observers. Hopefully, the two egotist leaders will make it rather than break it.


Nightmare scenario for Japan

Tatsuya Fukumoto
The Japan News, Japan

What is North Korea's objective?

"The most pressing issues for North Korea at the moment are avoiding a military conflict with the United States and concentrating on building its economy, which is a pillar of Mr Kim's "two-track policy" of nuclear and economic development," said Keio University Associate Professor Atsuhito Isozaki. "Getting economic sanctions lifted is essential if North Korea wants to gain economic assistance from South Korea. To secure US support for lifting these sanctions, North Korea firstly had to fulfil the preconditions needed for dialogue with Washington."

"Denuclearisation" was the key word in the preconditions for US-North Korea talks. Mr Trump swiftly indicated that he welcomed Mr Kim's show of willingness to give up Pyongyang's nuclear programme.

However, it is difficult to believe that North Korea will abandon the development of nuclear weapons it has worked so hard on for decades.

"Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula doesn't just mean 'denuclearisation of North Korea','' Prof Isozaki said. "It's a cliche trotted out by North Korea that includes demands to the United States and South Korea, such as the removal of US military forces from South Korea."

This latest agreement has seen the mood of rapprochement spread even further. Be that as it may, the North Korean crisis has not been resolved. It is quite possible North Korea will dredge up some sort of excuse to again revert to a hard-line stance. Pyongyang's eagerness to hold dialogue is also aimed at buying time for further nuclear and missile development.

Given all this, what would be the worst-case scenario Japan could conceivably face?

One would be a US-North Korea military conflict triggered by a US pre-emptive strike launched because Washington will not allow North Korea to possess intercontinental ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.

It is assumed North Korea could also inflict tremendous damage on Japan in a counterstrike.


Jaw-jaw, not war-war

Editorial
The Statesman, India

There is wide-eyed incredulity with the ebullient Donald Trump agreeing to meet the belligerent Kim Jong Un. Whatever the upshot of the meeting in May - on the invitation of Mr Kim - it would be presumptuous to aver that history is set to be enacted as farce.

Suffice it to register that the two worthies have agreed to engage in a historic bout of jaw-jaw - a sharp deviation from the characteristic bluster of "war-war".

There has been considerable fire and fury in recent months. Viewed through that chilling prism, the talks do deserve to be welcomed… even if they signify merely a deferment of confrontation. For both leaders, it will be a long, hard road to peace though not necessarily with good intentions. Should a peace agreement materialise, historians will record the development as a classic triumph.

Arguably, a freeze on nuclear weaponry would be a plausible outcome, but the task is easier contemplated than achieved.

The fundamental contradiction cannot be overlooked. Short of a forward movement, both leaders can at best agree to disagree.

As South Korea has swiftly remarked, the North "must match words with concrete action", and there is little doubt that Mr Kim remains an unpredictable quantity.

Credit for de-escalation should go primarily to South Korea, where President Moon Jae In's administration has worked tirelessly towards a rapprochement, exemplified very recently with Mr Kim's sister visiting Seoul and the attendant bonhomie.

Should the meeting be reduced to a fizzle, the risk of a confrontation is dangerously real. The summit in May lacks the diplomatic build-up and professional finesse that had once marked Mr Richard Nixon's mission to China.Yet this ought not to detract from the dramatic nature of diplomacy both on the part of Washington and Pyongyang.


 • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news media.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2018, with the headline 'Should we trust Kim on talks? And will Trump be ready?'. Print Edition | Subscribe