Negotiations between adversaries are difficult but can be overcome if the parties are sincere and employ unilateral reciprocated confidence-building measures, as is common in human interactions within Asia. Summits in Asia are quite different from contract-oriented Western summits. As Kim said, the purpose of the summit was to build “mutual trust with the United States,” which would be followed by “frequent meetings.”
Everything was going well between North Korea and the United States until monkey wrenches were thrown into the process. Their removal will enable Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un to have the productive summit they want.
The initiative came from South Korean President Moon Jae In, who said that Supreme Leader Kim Jong UN would like to meet American President Donald Trump. Kim indicated that he was willing to discuss “denuclearization.” He said that U.S.-South Korean wargames could continue without his objection. Missile tests, stopped last November, would not be resumed, and North Korea’s nuclear test site was to be shut down. He then met Mike Pompeo twice, developing what Trump called a “good relationship,” and released three imprisoned Americans.
To reciprocate, Trump referred to Kim as “honorable,” exchanged words with him on Twitter for 75 minutes, considered a reduction in American troops in South Korea, and opposed regime change. Wargames were toned down in March and April. And the offer for a summit was accepted and scheduled for June 12 in Singapore. Secretary of State Pompeo indicated that economic aid and investment were down the road.
Then uninformed pundits, posing as experts, began to mindread North Korea’s meaning of “denuclearization.” They expected capitulation rather than the real purpose – establishing mutual trust as a basis for future detailed negotiations. Next, John Bolton spoke out on April 29, insisting that complete denuclearization must precede economic aid, citing the “Libyan model” as the alternative option.
Although North Korea strongly objected to similar incendiary talk from Washington in the past, this time Pyongyang held its tongue – for two weeks, while failing to appear in Singapore for preparations. After Pompeo returned from Pyongyang the second time on May 10, Trump conceded that denuclearization would have to be in stages.
But, adding fuel to Bolton’s fire, on May 11 a new set of wargames began. They involved simulation of an attack on North Korea, including eight F-22 radar-evading fighters. North Korea also spotted nuclear-capable B-52s in South Korea, though they were evidently not part of the wargame. The Pentagon oddly described the offensive simulation as “defensive” and “routine.”
As a result, North Korea canceled talks with South Korea, rejected Bolton’s scenario, and hinted that the summit was in jeopardy until the agenda was clarified. Pyongyang, insisting that denuclearization would occur only after an end to America’s hostile policy and nuclear threats, rejected “blackmailing” for promises of American investments in North Korea.
At first, Trump remained unfazed and prepared to proceed but was equivocal. Then Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the “Libyan model.” Giving contract-oriented coercive language a higher priority than convivial diplomacy, he thereby doomed the summit. Tongue lashing from North Korea quickly followed. At Bolton’s insistence, Trump then canceled the summit, citing an atmosphere of hostility.
What was North Korea really seeking to accomplish? The answer, which South Korea’s president Moon already put in motion, is a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice, which the United States never signed. As a second step, North Korea has long sought normal diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States. Improved relations can be handled along with denuclearization through a series of steps similar to the comprehensive “Road Map” that led to American normalization of relations with Vietnam.
The summit is to be a culmination of many confidence-building measures between two proud leaders. Instead, others tried to impose a one-sided contract agenda as if trying to force a 7-year-old into marriage, and they are now staying out of the way.
Yet a summit will occur because both Kim and Trump want one. They will succeed if intruders step out of the way to let normal diplomacy work.
Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Michael Haas is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Hawaii. He is the author of 56 books, including the forthcoming United States Diplomacy with North Korea and Vietnam: Explaining Failure and Success (Peter Lang, Publisher) with a Foreword by Bill Richardson.