How Trump-Kim Talks Must Overcome History of Failure

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Seoul Warns Long Road Ahead for North Korea Talks

Donald Trump has agreed to meet Kim Jong Un -- a scenario that seemed improbable given the recent context of insults and threats exchanged between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea. What’s more, Kim has said he’s willing to consider relinquishing his nuclear arsenal, according to the first delegation of South Korean officials to meet with him. For veteran watchers of the authoritarian Kim dynasty, however, the message brought to mind similar statements by Kim’s father and grandfather, who used talks on their nuclear-arms program to extract concessions without ever giving up on the weapons. North Korea blames the U.S. for reneging on the deals.

1. Will there be nuclear talks?

An unprecedented summit between Trump and Kim will take place, possibly within weeks. According to a top South Korean official, Kim “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible” and Trump “said he would meet Kim by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.” The leaders of North and South Korea had earlier agreed to meet for a summit on their shared border in late April. One report said North Korea had promised to halt development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, but the pledge was dependent on “U.S. attitude.”

2. Why is it important the U.S. is involved?

Because North Korea says it wouldn’t give up its program without assurances that the U.S. poses no military threat to the country. Technically, the U.S. and North Korea are at war, given that the 1950s conflict between communist North Korea, backed by China and the Soviet Union, and South Korea, backed by the U.S., ended without a peace treaty. The U.S. stations some 30,000 troops in South Korea and conducts drills with its military.

3. What has stood in the way of talks?

Trump has insisted -- as did previous U.S. administrations -- that North Korea must be willing to commit to giving up its nuclear weapons before talks could begin. Recently North Korea’s position had been that talks shouldn’t be tied to any such conditions. And in an address in December, Kim said his nation’s nuclear deterrent was “irreversible.”

Fire and fury turns to iced water and pleasantries?

Source: Bloomberg

4. Why did Kim’s position soften?

His regime is so isolated, it’s impossible to do more than speculate. Kim may see himself negotiating from a position of strength after advancements in his nuclear program. At the same time he could be feeling the bite of tougher sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council, U.S. and European Union. The country’s currency reserves have shrunk enough to crimp imports of essential products, some analysts say. It’s also possible that Kim sees an opportunity to create dissension between the U.S. and South Korea. Moon Jae-in, who became president of South Korea in May, has encouraged talks -- prompting Trump to accuse him of "appeasement."

5. How advanced are Kim’s weapons and missiles programs?

Kim has accelerated the programs, declaring the country’s nuclear force “complete.” Last year, North Korea detonated what it said was a hydrogen bomb capable of riding an intercontinental ballistic missile. It also test-fired ICBMs and said the entire U.S. is now in range. One study concluded Kim’s military had successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles. But the U.S. military said as recently as January that North Korea hasn’t demonstrated essential capabilities for a missile, including whether such a device could survive reentry into the atmosphere and hit a target accurately.

6. What would be the point of negotiations?

Diplomats have long talked about seeking a grand bargain: In exchange for economic assistance and security guarantees, North Korea would give up its nuclear-weapons program in a way that could be verified by outsiders. Others argue the most that talks could achieve would be a freeze on the program.

7. Why the skepticism about North Korean intentions?

The U.S. says North Korea has a track record of escalating and then lowering nuclear tensions to win diplomatic and economic benefits. North Korea points the finger at the Americans for breaking their commitments.

  • A 1994 accord to freeze the nuclear program, agreed under Democratic President Bill Clinton, collapsed in 2002 after Republican President George W. Bush took office and the U.S. accused North Korea of having a secret program to produce highly enriched uranium -- a claim the North Koreans disputed and which was never proved. Bush had just used his 2002 state of union address to lump North Korea in with Iraq and Iran as the “axis of evil.”
  • A denuclearization agreement sealed during six-party talks in 2005 never got off the ground after the U.S. -- during the same week the agreement was signed -- sanctioned a Macao-based bank for laundering North Korean money and encouraged other governments to cut financial ties with Pyongyang. North Korea immediately boycotted the six-party talks and requested bilateral talks with the U.S., which rebuffed the idea.
  • In October 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, prompting another round of multinational talks that produced an agreement to close its nuclear facilities in exchange for food and energy assistance. That accord collapsed in 2009 following a dispute over inspections.

8. Would Kim be a more reliable partner?

The world will find out. Kim’s behavior suggests that, like his predecessors, his foremost concern is the perpetuation of his regime and he’s willing to go to extremes to ensure it. (He’s executed senior advisers including his uncle.) Possession of a nuclear arsenal, arguably, lowers the risk of a foreign invasion that would depose him. So to give it up, Kim would have to be convinced by whatever security guarantees he’d receive in exchange. Or he’d need to be seriously worried that his nukes were putting his regime in mortal peril.

9. Is accepting North Korea as a nuclear-armed state an option?

Some analysts have suggested that’s the best way to ease the current tensions, but no major country has said yet that it would go that far. Doing so could lead South Korea, Japan and perhaps Taiwan to seek their own nuclear arms -- undermining, perhaps fatally, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. When tensions were strained last year, South Korean politicians discussed the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which were removed in the early 1990s.

The Reference Shelf

  • A related QuickTake on North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • A Bloomberg infographic on North Korea’s military buildup.
  • Bloomberg News showed how money funneled through China makes it harder to apply sanctions to North Korea than to Iran in the past.
  • Bloomberg explained why joining the nuclear club is an obsession of North Korea’s leaders.
  • A research paper from the U.S.-Korea Institute outlines the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
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