To the Editor:
Trump may meet Kim Jong-un after successful negotiation of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula but not before and only if the negotiation produces absolute and verifiable denuclearization. This is a four-step process:
1. Surrounding conditions. At some point in a conflict, geo-political conditions, facts on the ground and the national interests of the states involved may create a situation where negotiations are possible; that is, a situation where both sides believe they have more to gain from a settlement than from continued conflict. It is unlikely, in my opinion, that the surrounding conditions are conducive to a successful negotiation of the North Korean problem. Neither Russia, Japan nor China is forcing Kim to negotiate. China has not even cut off Kim’ oil. Kim does not believe we will nuke him and thus does not feel compelled to negotiate to prevent the annihilation of his country. We do not believe we can find or destroy all his nuclear sites and missiles. And we may be too late. If we try to destroy his arsenal, one of his ICBMs might get through to Las Angeles or New York. We could lose tens of millions of our people. Kim believes this is a risk we will not take. A heads of state meeting now, before step 1, would foolishly commit Trump to a process that might not happen.
2. Political boundaries. The head of state determines the minimum he or she must get and the maximum they are willing to give up in the negotiation. The key political boundary for Kim is that he will not give up the nuclear arms so critical to his stature and national defense. The political boundary for the US is that we will accept nothing less than the complete denuclearization of North Korea now and for the future. So, here we have two conflicting political boundaries, which make negotiation next to impossible.
3. Diplomacy. Once the two sides have determined that negotiation will improve or at least not worsen their position, the stage is set for the diplomats. They are the people who take the devil out of the details. In the North Korean case, were there to be a North Korean case, the diplomats would spend a lot of time on how to verify denuclearization. They would also negotiate the reduction of sanctions and the provision of economic aid to the North. They might also negotiate a role for China as a guarantor of non-aggression by the North and a commitment by the US to draw down or remove its troops from the South with an understanding that the U.S. would militarily support the South if the North attacked the South. A heads of state meeting before the completion of step 3 would raise expectations which if not fulfilled would make Trump look foolish. It would be less wounding to Trump politically and personally to fail at step 3 than to fail at a heads of state meeting before step 1.
4. Heads of state meeting. Sometimes a meeting and handshake by the heads of state will formalize an agreement. This commits the leaders’ domestic credibility to the agreement and signifies that each government understands the agreement and will abide by it. Such a meeting has rarely happened in US history. George Washington did not shake the hand of King George III. Lincoln did not shake the hand of Jefferson Davis, nor did Truman shake Hitler’s hand or Lyndon Johnson shake the hand of the head of state of Vietnam. However, the denuclearization of North Korea and the likelihood of long-term peace on the peninsula would come as a great relief to the world. A celebration would be in order. It would be fitting for the heads of state of the US, North Korea and South Korea to smile and shake hands before the cameras and take credit for a wonderful achievement.
Gerrit Argento, PhD
Retired Foreign Service Officer