Seoul (AFP) – Nuclear-armed North Korea has outplayed a diplomatically naive US president with the agreement to hold a summit, analysts say, and has no intention of giving up its atomic weapons.
Donald Trump hailed the planned meeting with Kim Jong Un as “great progress” on the road to denuclearisation.
But analysts warn that agreeing to a sit-down so early in the process gives Pyongyang something it desperately wants without extracting meaningful concessions in return.
“North Korea has been seeking a summit with an American president for more than 20 years,” pointed out arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“It has literally been a top foreign policy goal.”
The US needs to talk to North Korea, he tweeted, but Kim was not seeking the meeting “so that he can surrender North Korea’s weapons”.
“Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that his investment in nuclear and missile capabilities has forced the United States to treat him as an equal.”
No sitting US president has ever met any of the North’s leaders, much less gone to Pyongyang.
Kim’s father Kim Jong Il invited Bill Clinton to come after the first North-South summit in 2000, but Clinton demurred; he visited the North only after leaving the White House to secure the release of detained Americans.
Jimmy Carter, another former president, also carried out a similar mercy mission, and other trips to try to broker peace.
If the summit goes ahead — and Trump’s White House is marked by a tendency to perform sudden about-faces — it will certainly be historic, and not to be sniffed at, argues John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul.
“Engaging (North Korea) is very hard work,” he said. “This is the beginning, not the grand solution. But it’s a very good start.”
– ‘Really harsh sanctions’ –
Months of raging tensions between the US and North Korea, involving personal insults and threats of war from both sides, gave way suddenly this year to diplomacy, much of it centred on the South’s hosting of the Winter Olympics.
Experts say Pyongyang was driven to make overtures to the US by the looming impact of ever-tightening sanctions on the North Korean economy and the oft-repeated warning of military action by the Trump administration.
The North’s major trade partner China was implementing “really harsh sanctions” for the “first time ever”, Andrei Lankov of the Korea Risk Group told AFP, and the economy was set to “start crumbling” within a year.
“More important is a fear of possible military operations by the US,” he added. “North Koreans don’t want to be shot at.”
But Pyongyang will play for time for as long as it can, he said. “North Koreans are going to talk about denuclearisation a lot without any intention to ever surrender their nuclear weapons.”
According to the South Korean envoys who carried the message from Kim to Trump, the North Korean leader said he was “committed to denuclearisation” and expressed his willingness to meet Trump as soon as possible.
And he promised to halt nuclear and missile tests while talks are underway.
But the North already possesses rockets capable of reaching the US mainland, and last year detonated what it said was an H-bomb. It has long described itself as a full-fledged nuclear power, and Kim has already declared the development of his nuclear forces complete.
– ‘Strategic gamble’ –
Trump’s sudden decision to meet Kim was “a major strategic gamble”, said Evan Medeiros, the former Asian affairs director of the National Security Council under president Barack Obama.
There had been no clear indication Kim was willing to abandon his nuclear weapons, he said, adding the North had long been “a skilful manipulator”.
“Kim was likely able to secure the meeting with Trump by taking advantage of Trump’s vanity as the self-professed world’s best dealmaker and South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s fervent desire to achieve peace with North Korea through dialogue.”
The White House, which is short on regional expertise — there has been no ambassador in Seoul for more than a year — will be going into any eventual summit without even rudimentary diplomatic groundwork in place.
“However skillful a negotiator Trump believes himself to be, there are few people in his administration with experience managing such a complex process with such a wily counterpart,” said Medeiros.
Abraham Denmark, director of the Wilson Center’s Asia programme, predicted: “Kim will accomplish the dream of his father and grandfather by making North Korea a nuclear state, and gain tremendous prestige and legitimacy by meeting with an American President as an equal.
“All without giving up a single warhead or missile.”