The time is finally upon us. North Korea has agreed to have diplomatic talks with both South Korea and the United States. Kim Jong Un will meet separately with both South Korea’s Moon Jae in and Donald Trump of the United States. While the South Korea meeting date is set, April 27, the United States’ formal time has yet to be determined.
It should be remembered that North Korea has engaged in diplomatic talks, notably the Six Party Talks held six times on and off between 2003 and 2009 in Beijing. In this case, the negotiations took the form of six countries – the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia – all taking to each other; “multilateral negotiations” in political jargon. While the focus of these talks was to dismantle the North Korean nuclear program, no changes in favor of denuclearization or halting of the project occurred. The talks ended when North Korea tested a Taepo Dong-2 three-stage rocket, billed as part of a civilian space program, after repeated warnings from the United States, South Korea, and Japan and condemnation from the UN Security Council.
From then, North Korea, under Kim Jong Un’s leadership since 2011, has ramped up their nuclear missile testing programs and refrained from engaging in negations. However, this changed when, on March 8, President Trump accepted Kim Jong Un’s invitation to return to the negotiating table. Although the date is not yet officially set, these talks between North Korea and the United States will, at this point, take place in May.
While diplomacy and negations are always a good sign, New York Times reporter Mark Lander notes that this meeting is a “breathtaking gamble.”
These negotiations are vastly different than any others. One: no sitting president of the United States has ever met with a North Korean leader. Two: The State Department is still sparsely staffed and concerningly unstable. Remember, Rex Tillerson was ousted on March 13 and Mike Pompeo, former head of the CIA, was nominated to take his place. According to Politico “…of the 163 Senate-confirmed positions for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, 65 positions don’t yet have a nominee, while many nominees have yet to be confirmed…” In other words, many of the top tier jobs in the State Department are empty or have new leadership. We are, a country operating without seasoned diplomats. Three: there is still no ambassador to South Korea. How can the United States make informed decisions about Korean culture and politics without a specialist?
Lastly and most importantly: heads of state, Kim Jong Un and President Trump, are meeting in the preliminary rounds of negations. Having this high-level meeting is also a huge concession to the North Koreans. Negotiations of this caliber normally are started by low level diplomats because they have the ability to change their minds without having massive blowback on their political carriers.
This is not the case with heads of state. Hypothetically, when the president comes in with an ask and then changes his mind, that receives much more attend than if that same situation happened with some low-ranking diplomat. Bringing in the president is like starting a baseball game with a relief pitcher, it’s taking the rules of the game and turning them on their head.
Another recent change is that Kim Jong Un visited China last week. Let me say that again; the most reclusive leader in the world left his stronghold for the first time since assuming control to go and meet with President Xi Jinping. This meeting could be seen as a trial run for future talks with South Korea and the United States. According to CNN, discussion points ranged from Kim’s commitment to denuclearization with some caveats, and to Xi’s acceptance of Kim’s invitation to visit Pyongyang.
But what was this meeting really about? Was this an effort to strengthen bilateral relations between China and North Korea? Is there an agenda that we just don’t know about? What role will China play in the upcoming negotiations?
This next month will definitely be a time to watch closely.