SUDDENLY, everybody wants to talk to the hermit king. On April 17th the Washington Post reported that Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA, met North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, over the Easter weekend. President Donald Trump more or less confirmed the story during a meeting with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe: “We have had direct talks at very high levels, extremely high levels, with North Korea.”
Mr Trump further indicated that his summit with Mr Kim was likely to take place by early June. In the meantime, he said, he had given his “blessing” to talks about formally ending the Korean war (the shooting stopped in 1953) at a summit on April 27th between Mr Kim and Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president. On April 18th a senior South Korean official confirmed that talks about a permanent peace agreement and a possible security guarantee for North Korea were on the table for the inter-Korean summit, along with a joint statement about “denuclearisation”—a polite term for scrapping North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
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Suddenly, not only did the two summits, which many had suspected would never take place, seem on track; there was also a prospect of real discussions. The term jongjun, which translates roughly as “end of war”, began trending on Naver, South Korea’s biggest search engine. On social media, people rushed to thank Mr Moon, the “best president ever”. The price of “reunification stocks”, such as railways and construction companies, shot up. Meanwhile elderly conservatives staged protests on Seoul’s subway against what they see as a sell-out to the communists.
“If the summit is a success we can have the place up and running again in a month,” says Woo Gye-keun of South Korea’s unification ministry. He is referring to the inter-Korean transit office near Ganseong, through which hundreds of thousands of South Koreans passed at the height of a past period of detente, to enjoy cultural exchanges, family reunions and hikes in the mountain park just across the border in the North. The subsequent cooling of relations left Mr Woo and his staff with nothing to do but scrub floors and dust countertops in the giant steel-and-glass building, in the hope that the tourists would eventually return.
Cold showers needed
Alas, both summits are likely to disappoint, but in different ways. The South-North talks will probably skirt hard topics such as human rights. Moreover, restarting even cross-border tourism, let alone heftier trade or investment, is impossible given the dense thicket of international sanctions around the North. Instead, Korea-watchers expect a focus on simpler goals such as agreeing to regular future meetings.
The subsequent summit between America and North Korea threatens almost the opposite outcome. Mr Trump and Mr Kim both talk about denuclearisation, and appear to have high expectations. But they see the forthcoming meeting through entirely different lenses.
Mr Trump seems to believe that a combination of tougher sanctions and military threats has brought Mr Kim to the negotiating table. Once there, Mr Trump suggests, he should present a plan for complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament. In the meantime America’s “maximum pressure” on North Korea, including the possibility of pre-emptive military action, would not be relaxed. After North Korea begins dismantling its nuclear programme, anything might be possible.
Mr Kim, in all likelihood, has something very different in mind. Whenever North Korea has talked in the past about “denuclearisation of the whole Korean peninsula”, it has made it clear that any reductions of its own nuclear arsenal would depend on the departure of American forces from South Korea and the removal of the “nuclear umbrella” that America extends to both South Korea and Japan.
Mr Kim would undoubtedly like to get some relief from sanctions and lock America into a drawn-out process of “phased, synchronised measures to achieve peace”. He probably thinks that Mr Trump is prepared to talk to him directly only because North Korea is on the verge of wielding nuclear missiles that could hit the American mainland. (No sitting American president ever met Mr Kim’s father or grandfather, from whom he inherited the job of dictator.) The summit is thus a recognition by America of his country’s status as a nuclear power. Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, regards it as “magical thinking” to suppose that Mr Kim has any intention of giving up his nukes.
That does not mean that Mr Kim will come to the summit empty-handed. Mr Pompeo must have been given enough encouragement to think it worth the president’s while to turn up. Mr Kim’s aim may be to offer a concession big enough to entice Mr Trump into the kind of protracted negotiation that would suit the North Korean despot nicely. One possibility might be a moratorium on tests of nuclear devices and of missiles with enough range to hit America. Mr Kim could hold out the prospect of never deploying such weapons in return for the lifting of some sanctions and progress towards the peace treaty that he hopes might eventually lead to the departure of American troops.
For his part, Mr Trump could boast of honouring his commitment to remove the threat to America of North Korean missiles, albeit at the cost of potentially weakening the alliance with South Korea and Japan. North Korea and its protector, China, have long wanted to decouple America from its regional allies.
Might Mr Trump accept such a dismal offer? It would be reassuring to think that the hawkish Mr Pompeo would counsel against it. But Mr Trump likes Mr Pompeo, his nominee as the next secretary of state, largely because he skilfully panders to the moods and instincts of his boss. It would also be characteristic of Mr Trump to play for the headlines and leave others to confront the thorny details. Gary Samore, a former adviser to Barack Obama, thinks that even if the talks go nowhere it is better to talk than to prepare for war. But like Mr Pollack, he has low expectations. As another Obama administration official ruefully observed, talking to the Kim family is like going to Taco Bell. You might go looking for something new, but you always end up with the same thing.