The Trump administration, to our knowledge, has yet to hear from North Korea that it actually wants a meeting between Kim Jong Un and President Trump. All we have is a message conveyed through South Korea, which, to be blunt, is not always the most reliable messenger.
Adm. Harry Harris, who oversees US military operations in the Indo-Pacific, said Thursday that “we can’t be overly optimistic on outcomes” when it comes to the recently announced summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“As we go into this, I think we can’t be overly optimistic on outcomes. We’ll just have to see where it goes if and when we have the summit,” Harris told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that he believed the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the peninsula would remain the goal of the talks.
Unlike the White House, Harris seems to understand that things are not always as they appear when it comes to Pyongyang, especially if we are getting a critical message third-hand from South Korea, which historically has been irrationally exuberant about the potential for diplomacy with North Korea.
Zhiqun Zhu from Bucknell University writes that “few have figured out why so far neither the North Korean government nor Kim himself has stepped forward to confirm (or deny) the planned meeting. This is both interesting and puzzling.” Perhaps, he says, “Kim Jong-un was caught off-guard by Trump’s impulsive decision to meet.” Maybe the invitation was in the vein of “Let’s have lunch sometime.” He explains:
Kim’s invitation to Trump was verbally relayed by South Korean officials, who may have not conveyed Kim’s message accurately or completely. Before the South Korean envoys traveled to Pyongyang, they were not even sure whether they would be able see Kim Jong-un. It turned out that Kim met with them on the day of their arrival, and much of the conversation between Kim and the South Korean delegation took place over a lavish dinner. TV footage shows alcohol was served and captured a high-spirited Kim, with a broad smile, waving goodbye to his guests at the end of the dinner. It is questionable whether everything he said during that dinner reflects his true thinking.
Well, if there really was no concrete invitation, Trump got snookered, looked gullible and revealed that he won’t ask for meaningful conditions if and when the United States and North Korea meet (at whatever level). Given his willingness to wing it and bluff an ally (Canada) on a basic fact he should know, the thought of Trump getting in the room with a wily opponent is a bit terrifying.
If North Korea did extend the invitation, it could have its own conditions. It is also far from clear what exactly is the object of the negotiations from Pyongyang’s perspective. Michael Rubin writes: “North Korea reportedly wants President Trump to sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War 65 years after an armistice established a ceasefire, according to a report by the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo.” However, in this case, “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s desire to negotiate without preconditions is not what it seems: After all, removing preconditions requires the formal voiding of every previous commitment North Korea made in negotiations.” He explains, “But, the risk goes further. Any peace treaty would end the United Nations Command which legitimizes and formalizes the U.S. presence in South Korea. In effect, the Trump administration would be trading the security of a key U.S. ally and one of the most vibrant economies in East Asia for the promise of North Korean denuclearization, a promise North Korea has repeatedly broken.”
Trump likely understands none of this, and did not have (or would not listen to) anyone knowledgeable about North Korea when he leaped at the supposed offer. We have no ambassador to South Korea. Rex W. Tillerson was cut out of the loop and then fired. A real expert on North Korea, Joseph Yun, abruptly resigned a few weeks ago. (“Yun’s abrupt departure raises questions and adds to uncertainty over US President Donald Trump’s North Korea policy as ally South Korea engages in talks with the North for the first time in years. The veteran diplomat had a reputation as a proponent of dialogue when it comes to dealing with North Korea.”)
It is not a good omen for any negotiations if we aren’t really sure the other side offered to negotiate or said what it wanted to negotiate. Next month, if and when Mike Pompeo is confirmed, perhaps he can figure this all out. Maybe he could start by trying to lure Yun back to work.