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Harry Kazianis: Surprise meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un could make progress on North Korea nuke dispute

Harry Kazianis: Surprise meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un could make progress on North Korea nuke dispute


Harry Kazianis: Surprise meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un could make progress on North Korea nuke dispute


President Trump’s meeting Saturday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and surprise tweet raising the prospect of a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offer the perfect opportunity to jumpstart efforts to persuade Kim to abandon his growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Trump, who is wrapping up meetings at the G20 summit in Japan, tweeted Saturday (Friday night in the U.S.): “After some very important meetings, including my meeting with President Xi of China, I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon). While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”

A deal on North Korean denuclearization – or more realistically progress toward denuclearization – could help bring peace to a Korean Peninsula that has technically been at war for 69 years. The Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953, but no peace treaty has ever been signed.


There has been little movement over the past few months towards a diplomatic solution over the dispute surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which Kim views as an insurance policy to deter a possible U.S. attack that could lead to the overthrow his communist dictatorship.

Talks between Trump and Kim in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi in February failed to reach any agreement on denuclearization.

But we have a problem right from the outset. Most summits are strong on photo-ops and spectacle, light on substance.

How will Trump and Moon inject a sense of urgency into their discussions, ensuring that North Korea understands that Washington and Seoul are serious about a denuclearization agreement that works for all sides?

And if Trump and Kim meet for a quick and – as far as we know – unplanned meeting at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas there seems virtually no chance their talks could bring about a major advance right away.

While Trump is eager to get the North to give up its nukes – an action that would be hailed as a diplomatic triumph for the American president – Kim is eager to get Trump to ease crippling international economic sanctions on the North.                     

While Trump is eager to get the North to give up its nukes – an action that would be hailed as a diplomatic triumph for the American president – Kim is eager to get Trump to ease crippling international economic sanctions on the North.                     

It’s critical that Trump convince Kim that America and South Korea are ready to deal, giving Kim substantial sanctions relief in return for major progress on denuclearization.

Considering the mixed signal coming out of Pyongyang these days – a flattering letter from Kim one day, multiple angry denunciations of the U.S. days later – it is not a stretch to say that North Korea’s leadership is unsure about its approach to the outside world in the weeks and months to come.

Will Kim now meet with Trump and order diplomats to prepare for a third U.S.-North Korea summit for more substantive talks as widely reported?

Or will Pyongyang continue to court great power patrons like Russia and China and eventually begin testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons again, putting Northeast Asia back on a war footing like the dark days of 2017?

Enter the Demilitarized Zone along the border between North and South Korea.

Trump’s planned visit to this historic setting – used by many U.S. leaders to convey resolve while standing shoulder to shoulder with the leader of South Korea during dangerous times – presents a golden opportunity to make a big splash during Trump’s summit with Moon.

If the visit to the DMZ turns into even a short “just here to say hello” meeting between Trump and Kim, it would give Trump a chance to make sure North Korea understands loud and clear that the U.S. president is serious about finding a diplomatic solution to decades of tensions.

But what should Trump say to Kim if they meet, or say in his remarks to the media covering his visit to the DMZ even if he doesn’t meet with the North Korean leader?

I have several suggestions on the message Trump should convey to Moon and – if he has the opportunity – to Kim.

These suggestions spell out what a new U.S. approach towards North Korea could look like and would not only ease tensions but would most likely get Pyongyang back to the negotiating table for serious talks.

First, Trump should make clear that the elements of the denuclearization deal that were on the table in Hanoi should be the starting point of future negotiations with North Korea.

This could mean: focusing talks on the possibility of the U.S. and the North opening liaison offices in each other’s capitals; starting something akin to joint task force to conduct searches in North Korea for the remains of U.S. military members killed in the Korean War; and a political declaration signed by Trump and Kim ending the state of war that exists in Korea to this day.

All of that would be historic – and that’s just for starters. Trump would then need to get to the heart of the issue – why the summit in Hanoi fell apart back in February: the terms of what amounts to a first step toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

Trump should make clear he is open to many different starting points, but that North Korea must begin soon what will be a multi-year effort to wind down what is now a vast nuclear weapons development program that is spread across the entire country.

Again, Trump could use what was negotiated in Hanoi as a starting point. Trump could take North Korea up on its previous offer to fully shut down all its nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon complex, one of the Kim regime’s biggest nuclear weapons production areas. International inspectors would need to closely monitor all aspects of dismantlement, with their work not tampered with or interrupted.

What Trump could offer in return would certainly get North Korea’s attention: a promise to suspend all U.N. Security Council resolutions involving trade in coal and textiles with North Korea. This suspension would be granted for one year, allowing Washington to test North Korea’s intentions, to see if it is finally prepared to give up its nuclear program.

If Kim makes substantial progress in dismantling Yongbyon, America would then not only end sanctions on coal and textiles permanently, but could offer additional incentive-based agreements enabling North Korea to get the benefit of large amounts of sanctions being suspended.

And if the North complies with agreements on denuclearization, it could get economic sanctions ended permanently.

There is no reason Kim should reject such an approach. In fact, this action-for-action model is one that the Kim regime has been asking for.

There is, however, an important catch that is essential: a snapback provision would be included in any deal, ensuring Pyongyang would feel economic pain for cheating on any agreement.

This simple approach could serve as the foundation of a new relationship between America and North Korea, allowing both sides to build sorely needed trust, forging a new path free of nuclear threats and brinksmanship.


If North Korea is truly serious about giving up its nuclear weapons and becoming what would amount to the last Asian economic tiger, then it is time to make history and follow President Trump’s lead.

Will all this be settled in the next few days if Trump and Kim meet at the Demilitarized Zone? Certainly not. But important progress could be made, laying the groundwork for a formal Trump-Kim summit in coming months that could produce results benefitting both sides.



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