Will North Korea summit happen? Depends on closing gaps in talks

Will North Korea summit happen? Depends on closing gaps in talks
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Following the rollercoaster ride that has accompanied scheduling of an on again, off again summit between President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens MORE and Kim Jong Un, where do we actually stand in terms of defining a convergence of interest on the process, pace and price of denuclearization that might be expected to accompany the meeting, if and when it actually happens?

A delegation led by American Ambassador Sung Kim has reportedly entered North Korea for negotiations in Panmunjom, while a delegation led by White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin is meeting with North Korean counterparts in Singapore to discuss protocol for the summit. North Korean Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol arrives in New York for the highest level visit by a North Korean official since Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok visited President Clinton in the Oval Office in 2000. Here are the main issues they must resolve before Trump and Kim will be ready to meet.

A denuclearization process must be part of the talks

For a summit to have historic value, it must be accompanied by the identification of shared goals of denuclearization and peace, clearly defined, staged and sequenced, and a feasible means by which to achieve that objective. Unless the shared goals are backed by a bureaucratic process that links up North Korea’s interests in peace, tension reduction, and diplomatic normalization with the international community’s interest in the removal of weapons of mass destruction from North Korea, a summit will be a spectacle but will not have durable meaning.

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This means that the two bureaucracies must define and implement shared objectives, and it means that the peace process envisioned in the Panmunjom Declaration by South Korea and North Korea must be synced up with tangible steps toward denuclearization, the scope of which must be clearly defined to include both intercontinental ballistic missiles and chemical and biological weapons. To support such a process, there must be international consensus on the need to link easing sanctions with tangible North Korean actions toward denuclearization.

North Korea has objected to Trump administration senior officials to the “Libyan model,” which is seen as shorthand for a front-loaded denuclearization process that blocks North Korean efforts to buy time. But the North Koreans interpret the Libyan model as the equivalent of a unilateral surrender that endangers the regime. Instead, the negotiating teams must find a successful “North Korean model,” or means by which to achieve comprehensive denuclearization, that better reflects the sunk costs of North Korea’s program and that makes feasible the transformational significance of a North Korean turn from isolation to integration with the international community as a normalized state.

There is a gap over the pace of denuclearization

In public statements during the past few weeks, the Trump administration and the North Koreans have revealed their differences over an “all in one” versus a phased approach to denuclearization. In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS warns airlines about flying over Persian Gulf amid Iran tensions Trump: Anonymous news sources are 'bulls---' Iranian official: Trump 'holding a gun' while pursuing talks MORE stated that the “model that we have laid forth is rapid denuclearization, total and complete, that won’t be extended over time.”

President Trump seemed to be negotiating with himself over the pace of denuclearization when he told “Fox and Friends” the next day that he would “like to have it done immediately, but physically, a phase-in may be a little bit necessary. It would have to be a rapid phase-in but I’d like to see it done at one time.” The North Korean statement late last week by Vice Minister Kim Kye Gwan, designed to get summit talks back on track, said that the “first meeting would not solve all, but solving even one at a time in a phased way would make the relations get better rather than making them get worse. The U.S. should ponder over it.”

The United States desires a front-loaded denuclearization process to prevent North Korea from dragging things out and buying time, but North Korea will likely resist such demands in the absence of proof that the United States is willing to transform its hostile relationship with North Korea to one of friendship, beyond President Trump’s personal guarantees of Kim Jong Un’s safety, happiness and wealth.

There is a gap over the price of denuclearization

The North Korean position on the price of denuclearization has been the removal of the American “hostile policy” toward North Korea, which many analysts interpret as the thin end of the a wedge that could render the rationale for U.S. force presence on the Korean Peninsula unnecessary and decouple South Korea from its alliance with the United States.

President Trump seems willing to consider an end to the Korean War and should be willing to support South Korea in its efforts to reduce tensions and achieve peaceful coexistence. However, no declaration of peace will have meaning without denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It is also impossible to imagine a fully normalized relationship between Washington and Pyongyang without efforts to address North Korea’s woeful human rights conditions, but it is easy to imagine North Korea using American criticisms of its internal conditions as a pretext that North Korea might use to quit denuclearization sometime down the road.

The summit will happen if both sides can close the gaps

If Trump and Kim can close gaps on the process, pace and price of denuclearization, they will likely meet and make a deal. In this respect, both they are like fishermen trying to lure in the big one. But whether or not either can make a big catch will depend on who is able to draw the other out, reel the other in, and keep the other side on the hook.

Scott Snyder is a senior fellow in Korea studies and director of the Korea program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.”