Commentary: A reality check on Korea nuclear talks

When President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in first agreed to meet in Washington Tuesday, they seemed to genuinely believe they might be on the brink of a major rapprochement with the North. Now, there are concerns over whether the much-touted summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un scheduled for Singapore on June 12 will happen at all.          [Update: Trump with Kim on May 24, writing that he hoped to meet the North Korean leader "some day."]

A combination photo shows U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) in Washington, DC, U.S. May 17, 2018 and in Panmunjom, South Korea, April 27, 2018, respectively. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque and Korea Summit Press Pool/File Photos

With hindsight, Pyongyang’s announcement last week that it might pull out of the meeting should have been less of a surprise. North Korea has spent decades using similar tactics to shape the diplomatic agenda with the South and Washington, raising hopes of a breakthrough – then sparking a crisis and moving the goal posts.

It’s still less than a month since Moon and Kim engaged in what appeared a successful summit in the demilitarized zone, both pledging to work towards the complete denuclearization of the peninsula. Last week, however, Pyongyang furiously denounced Washington for demanding the North’s unilateral disarmament, particularly as a precondition for potential U.S. economic aid.

Deadline Iran

Reuters columnists on the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal

Most likely, the June 12 encounter will still go ahead – Kim and Trump each appear fascinated by the prospect of meeting one other, and for both the summit itself will be seen as a significant diplomatic victory. What does seem increasingly clear, however, is that the sort of breakthrough some in the White House had hoped for – particularly Pyongyang giving up its nuclear weapons – was never really on the table.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the diplomatic process is over. The United States, North and South Korea still each have what they consider realistic goals for what they can achieve. The North Korean bluster last week was clearly part of that process – one designed to put Washington and Seoul in an awkward position.

In particular, it was about adjusting expectations. The leadership in Pyongyang – both Kim and those around him – are almost certainly no more willing to give up their nuclear weapons than they are their brutal, autocratic style of government. In their own eyes, one is almost certainly indissolubly linked to the other.

Within North Korea, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s ill-judged comments on a “Libya model” may have deepened the already considerable nervousness about denuclearization. Neither Kim nor those who depend on his rule will have any appetite to follow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in giving up weapons of mass destruction, only to find themselves on the receiving end of a U.S.-led “regime change” a few years later. As Trump himself clearly grasped when he contradicted his adviser, Kim needs to believe he can stay in control of North Korea even if he gives up his nuclear weapons.  

All sides do, however, have some relatively desperate wants. Washington wants Pyongyang to stop its recent advances in missile and warhead technology that could endanger the entire continental United States. North Korea wants to be sure it has the military clout to deter the United States from taking military action against it, the primary reason it was pushing ahead so aggressively with its test program. And South Korea – particularly under President Moon – has made it a primary national security priority to avoiding any outbreak of hostilities that would devastate the Korean peninsula.

On that front, the current situation – and particularly the upcoming program of talks – actually suits all sides.

For North Korea, the diplomatic process brokered by the South – starting with the Winter Olympics, now moving towards the Kim-Trump meeting in Singapore – gave a ready excuse to halt an aggressive – but also increasingly provocative – weapons testing program.

It is possible that unexplained problems with Pyongyang’s test site and weapons may have contributed to that decision. At the same time, however, there is no doubt the United States was signaling increasingly aggressively that should the test program continue, Trump was considering a potentially devastating military strike. Neither North nor South Korea had any appetite for that prospect, nor did nearby Japan, which would likely have also borne the brunt of any North Korean retaliation, nuclear or otherwise.

North Korea also has a number of other basic wants, particularly economic aid. In an ideal world, Pyongyang would like to see the United States reduce its troop numbers in South Korea, as well as cut back military exercises it fears may be a precursor to war. Cutting back on tests makes both of those more likely – at the very least, it is much harder for Washington to justify the kind of aggressive military drills it launched last year while talks remain ongoing.

Thereby lies the paradox. All sides have a vested interest in keeping the diplomatic process going, but none really want to give up much while they do so. Anything that allows delay, therefore, can almost be seen as a positive – providing it doesn’t cause such great anger on any side that matters start to escalate dramatically again.

That makes it possible neither side would lose much sleep should the Singapore talks have to be delayed. The most likely scenario, however, remains the status quo continuing on the peninsula, even as all sides pull out all the stops to maintain the illusion of a forward-moving diplomatic process.

And that, perhaps, is South Korean President Moon’s greatest victory. As long as parties are talking, South Korea is staving off disaster. That might have to be enough for everyone, at least for now.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.