If everything goes according to plan, President Trump is expected to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before the end of May. That leaves roughly 12 weeks to put together a plan for one of the most high-profile diplomatic events in recent years. Planning this will be a venture into uncharted waters — as no sitting U.S. president has ever met with a North Korean leader, there is no map to follow.
One of the simplest elements in the plan may be one of the most important: Where should the meeting take place?
As a real estate tycoon like Trump should know, location can be a key factor in negotiations. Some countries are already vying for the opportunity to host. Sweden and Switzerland have issued statements offering to help facilitate the meeting, while former Mongolian president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj suggested that his country was the most “suitable, neutral territory.”
The issue raises a number of symbolic points that both sides will need to grapple with, as well as some major practical concerns: Though he was raised partially in Switzerland, since he took power in North Korea in late 2011, Kim has not set foot outside the country.
Here are some of the main possibilities:
- North Korea. In the past, high-profile meetings between U.S. political figures and North Korean leaders have generally taken place in North Korea itself. For example, former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have both visited Pyongyang in bids for better U.S.-North Korea relations.
- The United States. Another possibility would be to hold talks in the United States. In June 2016, then-candidate Trump said he would be willing to invite Kim to the United States for talks, suggesting that he would “accept him” and serve the North Korean delegation hamburgers.
- A third-party country. To ensure neutrality, it might make sense to choose a third party to host. Switzerland and Mongolia both make sense for their neutrality, while Sweden may be a particularly appealing option because of its long-standing ties to Pyongyang and its role as a protecting power for the United States in North Korea, assuming consular responsibility for U.S. citizens. Another option may be to choose a venue in another country that plays an important role in North Korea, such as China, Russia or even South Korea.
- The demilitarized zone. Speaking of South Korea, Pyongyang's shared border with its southern neighbor — and the demilitarized zone that runs along it — may prove to be the most logical choice. The “truce village” of Panmunjom is a likely venue: There are already plans to hold an inter-Korean summit at the site next month, the first such event in more than a decade.
Right now, it's hard to guess exactly where the meeting might be held. Michael Madden, founder of the website North Korea Leadership Watch, said it was unlikely that Kim would travel outside North Korea. Though Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, went outside the country for meetings, he left North Korea in the hands of Kim Jong Un or another trusted relative when he did so.
“They have to have a designated survivor in Pyongyang,” Madden said. “It's just the way North Korea works internally.” At present, the highest-profile relative of Kim, his sister Kim Yo Jong, may be too vital to foreign relations to leave behind on any meeting with Americans, Madden added, leaving no obvious choice to stand in.
However, a potential Trump trip to Pyongyang would almost certainly face a big pushback from other members of the administration, who would view it as showing far too much deference to North Korea — likely to be a big controversy as the talks near.
“Symbolically, I think that is too much,” said Jenny Town, a Korea scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
A possible compromise might be the demilitarized zone, Town said. “It's heavily guarded enough. It's considered both North and South Korea there,” she said in a phone call Friday. “For Kim Jong Un, it's basically a way to stay in North Korea while still having these meetings in a more neutral spot.”
Madden agreed, noting that the symbolism of the site could help both parties. “If this thing goes completely south” and becomes a disaster, “both sides have fantastic PR footage,” he added. If talks progressed further, Madden said, he would expect countries such as Switzerland and Sweden to take a more direct role in later deliberations.
Still, Trump's announcement this week about the proposed meeting shows that sometimes it may be better to expect the unexpected. “Optically it looks really bad if Trump goes to Pyongyang,” Town said, but “Trump does a lot of things we don't expect. I don't think we can rule it out.”
The same may be true from the North Korean side, Madden warned. “Maybe Kim Jong Un will fly to New York City and they'll have it at Trump Tower over hamburgers and ice cream.” Ultimately, Madden said, picking a location may require some creative thinking from both sides.
“We're really fishing in weird waters right now,” he said. “It'll be a great show.”
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