The announcement in Washington Thursday night that the leaders of America and North Korea would soon meet for the first time and talk about eliminating North Korea’s nuclear missiles was an astonishing moment pregnant with promise — an event that let the world sigh. Enjoy it. But now look beneath the book’s cover. The prequel has not even been drafted, let alone any chapters written.
South Korea’s national security director, Chung Eui-Yong, told reporters on the White House lawn Thursday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had committed to “denuclearization.” Kim had told the South Koreans he could even tolerate U.S.-South Korean military exercises, drills that Kim had previously decried. And Kim said he would refrain from additional tests of ballistic missiles or nuclear bombs, according to Chung.
South Korean and North Korean officials plan to meet in April to try to make more progress. More surprisingly, President Donald Trump has agreed to meet Kim face to face by May at a location that has yet to be announced (or determined), according to U.S. and South Korean officials.
However stunning the evening’s event was, it was still less than meets the eye.
Given the complexity of the atomic issues involved, it is quite likely that both the springtime meetings will be merely photo opportunities to launch serious talks, not to announce agreements, except perhaps on broad principles. Recall that it took about a decade for world powers to reach an agreement freezing Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Plenty of questions will almost certainly remain unresolved even after Kim and Trump shake hands in a few months.
For example, how and when will North Korea give up its nuclear weapons? Or will it try to hold on to some, notwithstanding the use of the term “denuclearization?” And what about Kim’s chemical and biological arsenal? What about the presence of some 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea? What about the North Korean artillery that can decimate Seoul? What role will China play, or other countries for that matter?
And if Kim is serious about disarmament, what kind of intrusive inspection regime will he accept to verify that for the world to see?
Back in Washington, will U.S. hawks always doubt Kim is coming clean, as they did about Saddam Hussein in Iraq, even though he had no weapons of mass destruction, and as they do now about Iran, even as U.S. spies report, as recently as this week, that Iran is abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal? Or would the presence of Trump’s name on a deal make Republicans more trusting?
In addition to questions about what Kim will give up (and how) are questions about what he will get in return. He has spent a lot of money and his nuclear weapons are his crown jewels. He will not hand them over for pennies on the dollar.
Announcing talks, even if they seemed almost unfathomable earlier Thursday, is one thing. Reaching a deal that can stick is quite another.
Trump’s bellicose tweets about “little rocket man,” and his loose talk about his big button, however ill-advised they seemed at the time, may have been a big reason why Kim now wants to negotiate. But do not discount the third new leader in the mix: Moon Jae-in, the dove who has pushed indefatigably for peace talks with Kim.
Several U.S. presidents have negotiated to end North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and all have failed. Sure, Kim is a new leader, and so is Trump. But both men are likely to drive hard bargains — at least as hard as their unsuccessful predecessors.
For Kim to merely meet with Trump can be seen in North Korea as a victory for Pyongyang — and a major capitulation by Trump, particularly since he once said his secretary of State would be wasting his time to talk to North Korea.
In other words, the meeting between the two leaders will enshrine the fact that Kim has already become a nuclear power worthy of fear, if not respect. After all, he is able to hit the United States with a nuclear warhead, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. Attention must now be paid, and he knows it. He is, in a sense, in the driver’s seat.