Will Trump & Kim Jong Un Meet? South Korea Is Playing The Middle Man For Now
Earlier this week, a delegation of South Korean officials had an unprecedented meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. Two diplomats present at Monday's meeting with Kim subsequently left for the U.S. to brief American officials on what they had discussed. To the South Korean diplomats' surprise, Kim had a message for the U.S. He said he was open to beginning negotiations with Washington in regards to the North's missile program, which prompts the question: Will Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un eventually meet?
According to CNN, this week's meeting may have been Kim's first official meeting with South Korean officials since he came to power in 2011. On Tuesday, South Korean National Security Office Head Chung Eui-yong announced that Kim was open to joining the U.S. "in an open-ended dialogue to discuss the issue of denuclearization and to normalize relations with North Korea," so long as the North's security is not threatened. Chung was one of two diplomats who then traveled to the U.S., and his announcement prompted an optimistic outlook among some American officials — including Trump.
"I think that their statement and the statements coming out of South Korea and North Korea have been very positive," Trump said on Tuesday. "So I really believe they are sincere. I hope they're sincere. We're going to soon find out." Trump went on to suggest that Kim's apparent change of heart was a result of U.S.-imposed sanctions on North Korea.
Other senior U.S. officials reportedly advised caution over optimism. One unnamed senior official reportedly told The Washington Post that "the North Koreans have earned our skepticism" after "breaking every agreement they've ever made with the United States and the international community."
Intelligence officials shared this skeptical sentiment: Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley argued that North Korea's nuclear weapons arsenal — and the threats it allows the regime to make — is vital to its survival, therefore making it more unlikely that Kim would pursue denuclearization.
Nonetheless, this is not the first time that Trump expressed an interest in meeting with Kim. Last month, he said he would be open to meeting with North Korea, but only "under the right conditions." Trump called on North Korea to demonstrate an interest in denuclearization in order to make such talks possible. At the time, South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked the Trump administration to be more prepared to compromise, but following Chung's announcement on Tuesday that Kim was open to denuclearization talks, Trump tweeted that "the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!"
Even if a meeting between Trump and Kim now seems more likely, it is possible that the U.S. does not have the officials necessary to proceed. The State Department's special representative on North Korean policy, Joseph Yun, recently left his post, and there is still no U.S. ambassador to South Korea following the abrupt withdrawal of North Korea expert Victor Cha's nomination.
Moreover, analysts and diplomats are concerned that the Trump administration does not have a concrete strategy in place in order to proceed with denuclearization talks. The question of whether or not Trump and Kim will meet has been prevalent throughout Trump's time in office, but with South Korea consistently acting as a middleman, a more pressing question has arisen: If Trump and Kim sit down for talks, what will Trump say?
South Korea's Moon has long expressed a desire to see a reunification of the Korean peninsula in his lifetime, and has therefore been open to talks with North Korea, but the Trump administration's strategy has thus far been "maximum pressure and engagement." Now that Kim has seemingly met the Trump administration's conditions for arranging talks by being open to denuclearization, it is unclear what Trump's negotiation strategy might be — something that will only become more critical going forward.