Trump-Kim mini-summit: ‘Reality show’ or a new reality in diplomacy?
Whether this weekend’s encounter between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un amounts to a meaningful step toward peace on the divided Korean peninsula or is a cheap and illusory “reality” show, with no lasting significance, is difficult to know at this point.
The way the meeting hastily came together, at the intensely militarized border separating the two Koreas, shows us how the practices of diplomacy are changing to fit Trump’s instincts as well as the 24/7 media spectacles of cable news and social media.
This third summit (or mini-summit) between Trump and Kim was not as spontaneous as it was staged to appear; media circles in South Korea and the United States were filled with chatter about the possibility for a week in advance.
Many Korea analysts who subscribe to the traditional norms of diplomacy and all the advance planning and negotiation that typically go into summits rolled their eyes at the show-biz aspects of Trump’s invitation to Kim via Twitter on Saturday and the photo-op that followed: The first-ever, face-to-face encounter on the Korean Peninsula between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. Yet, it’s another first by Trump, regardless of the long-term impact.
The images from the DMZ looked a bit like a summit between leaders of two crime families; indeed, Trump had to ask Kim if North Korea’s key negotiators with the United States are still alive, after reports of their purge following their previous failed summit in Hanoi. This underscores how dealing with North Korea often entails out-of-the-box gestures, as well as how Kim Jong Un is the big winner of the weekend’s events.
The impasse that derailed the Hanoi summit in February over what it might take for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons turned into an embarrassment for Kim at the time, as Kim did not expect to leave Hanoi empty-handed. The way Trump and Kim have since courted each other with “excellent” letters, in Trump’s words, coupled with how Trump gushed on Sunday about the “great friendship” between the two leaders, is once again giving North Korea’s dictatorship a sense of validation, whether or not this is deserved.
This elevation of Kim Jong Un as a world leader appears set to continue, now that Trump says he will invite Kim to the White House. It suggests a fourth episode of the Trump-Kim reality show will soon be in the making.
The bigger question is whether their respective governments, between now and then, finally will be able to work out what they mean by denuclearization, what this will require of all stakeholders in the region, and what kinds of gradual steps forward can advance in a sincere way the goal of a peaceful, nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
These kinds of details, elusive for so long in negotiations, will require concessions by both the United States and North Korea.
The United States will need to drop its earlier demand, made at the Hanoi summit, that North Korea give up its entire stockpile of nuclear weapons in one, immediate fell swoop. North Korea will need to show in a very transparent manner that it is ready to phase out its nuclear weapons program, even if all odds seem to indicate this unlikely.
After three encounters between Trump and Kim, it’s far from clear if North Korea is really willing to get rid of its nuclear weapons — despite this very message, conveyed to Trump in March of last year by the South Korean government, that put Trump on the path to direct dialogue with Kim in the first place. Is North Korea serious about denuclearization, or is it just buying time to gain grudging acceptance, if not outright international recognition, that it has joined the club of nuclear powers?
Continuing dialogue with North Korea is a good idea, and symbolic moments such as the DMZ mini-summit can help set the tone for more substantive negotiations. Little has changed, however, since the events surrounding the first Trump-Kim summit in June of last year in Singapore.
North Korea has stopped its nuclear testing; the United States and South Korea have scaled down their joint military exercises; and North Korea remains under heavy international economic sanctions. Can the next phase of discussion lead to a peace worth attaining rather than the current uneasy peace or the possibility that all the talk ultimately will award the Kim dictatorship legitimacy as a nuclear power amid a changing geopolitical environment?
What‘s more, if the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia are ever to attain a peace worth having with the current North Korean regime remaining in place, Kim not only has to give up his nuclear weapons but also faces the challenge of crafting a new narrative — in domestic politics, for the North Korean people — justifying peace with South Korea and the United States. Ever since the Korean War, the North Korean regime has justified its existence as protecting the North Korean people from the American imperialists and their South Korean colonial lackeys.
It seems unimaginable for North Korea to change this narrative overnight and explain to its people that it is now charting a different kind of relationship with South Korea and the United States — and that North Korea resisted changing its narrative during South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy” peace initiative, when former president Kim Dae-jung first visited Pyongyang in 2000.
Nevertheless, the ongoing diplomatic process gives North Korea a window of opportunity to change the narrative gradually.
Especially if the next meeting between Trump and Kim takes place at the White House, the United States had better first establish North Korea’s real intentions and see if Kim goes about changing the regime’s narrative at home. Only then will substantive measures forward be within reach.
Hans Schattle is a professor of political science and international relations at Yonsei University, one of South Korea’s three largest private academic institutions, in Seoul. His research interests work across the fields of globalization, citizenship, democracy, and the politics of East Asia, Europe and the United States. He is the author of two books, The Practices of Global Citizenship (2008) and Globalization and Citizenship (2012), both published by Rowman & Littlefield. He also co-edited the volume Making Social Democrats: Citizens, Mindsets, Realities, published last year by Manchester University Press.