While Pyongyang’s May 13 announcement Kim Jong-un is open to meeting President Donald Trump generated surprise and hope, there should be neither. Hope was dashed the next day by North Korea conducting another unsurprising ballistic missile test – the 75th test under its new leader.
Pyongyang’s announcement about willingness to meet came after Trump said he would be “honored” to meet Kim, later qualifying this with the North’s willingness first to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Kim’s response, therefore, was also conditional, stating he would meet under the right conditions. Apparently, such conditions include developing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Regardless of either side’s conditions, not only is a meeting highly unlikely to occur, but it is also very unlikely Kim would ever come to the U.S. He did learn a few things from his late father, Kim Jong-il.
It was during Kim Jong-il’s leadership (1994-2011) that three meetings took place involving either high-level U.S. or South Korean government representatives.
The first garnered great euphoria on the Korean peninsula – at least in the South – when a peace summit took place in Pyongyang in June 2000. It resulted from South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s (1998-2003) “Sunshine Policy” (aka “appeasement”) toward the North – a policy that never improved relations.
Kim Dae Jung traveled to Pyongyang to make the historic meeting happen. He undoubtedly was hopeful it would enable him to plant the seeds of rapprochement between the two Koreas. Both leaders agreed to a follow-up summit in Seoul.
The euphoria a new beginning for the two Koreas might be in the works won the South Korean president the Nobel Prize for his reconciliation efforts.
Then, in October 2000, as President Bill Clinton’s presidency was winding down, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang, hoping to lay the groundwork for a possible meeting for Clinton before departing office. The meeting never occurred.
The reciprocal meeting of the two Korean leaders in Seoul also never occurred. After the South Korean president left office, his successor, Roh Moo Hyun, reached out to Kim Jong-il. A second peace summit was held in 2007 – this one again in Pyongyang.
Despite these overtures to the North, as well as numerous other lower-level initiatives resulting in Pyongyang receiving critical oil and food supplies, we have seen hostilities between North Korea and the South and its allies increase to the point a US Navy ship armada sails to within striking distance of the peninsula today.
Now, not only has Trump extended an olive branch to pursue a diplomatic solution on the issues giving rise to these hostilities, but so too has South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae In, elected earlier this month, who says he is willing to go to Pyongyang.
While a Trump/Kim meeting is unlikely, a Moon/Kim meeting may occur. Should it reach the planning stage, the lesson the current North Korean leader’s father impressed upon his son will bear out. Pyongyang will insist the meeting occur in the North and at a price.
The North Korean dictatorship understands the axiom: “Mohammad will not go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammad.” Adherence to it contributes to Kim’s further deification by demanding other world leaders journey to Pyongyang to pay him homage. Only a meeting occurring outside Pyongyang will indicate a serious interest by Kim in a peaceful resolution.
Kim’s father also taught him “time” is a democracy’s weakness. Their leaders have only limited elected terms to achieve goals while dictators have a lifetime to do so. A new democratic leadership also tends to believe it alone can negotiate a peaceful resolution with a dictatorship, often willing to surrender something of value to do so. Dictatorships need only identify what that value is and take it, never surrendering something of equal value in exchange.
Kim’s father was quite effective at this, demanding billions from the South to hold two summits. It left the North a bit richer, helping it continue along a path making it much more dangerous today than during his father’s reign.
Another factor is at play, influencing Pyongyang’s “take-and-not-give” philosophy. While its relationship with its largest trading partner, China, is frayed, Pyongyang is not worried. In another example of the mountain coming to Mohammad, the Russians now are looking to fill any void China leaves.
Additionally, Pyongyang’s nuclear program has nurtured an alliance with Iran. For several years, Tehran has benefited tremendously from it, using Pyongyang for research and development for its own program. Despite knowing this, President Obama failed to include a provision in his nuclear deal with the mullahs banning such activity.
Evidence of a North Korea/Iran joint development nuke program was noted earlier this month when Tehran attempted an underwater launch of a cruise missile from a midget submarine. The Iranian submarine was based on a North Korean design of the type Pyongyang used in 2010 to torpedo and sink the South Korean destroyer Cheonan. While unknown whether the launch was successful, one conducted a week earlier failed.
This link is unsurprising. As missile proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis points out, “The very first missiles we saw in Iran were simply copies of North Korean missiles. Over the years, we’ve seen photographs of North Korean and Iranian officials in each other’s countries, and we’ve seen all kinds of common hardware.”
Tehran undoubtedly encourages Pyongyang to press forward aggressively with its program – most likely paying it with funds surrendered by Obama’s nuke deal. No U.S. effort to reel in the latter is taken by the former as a green light to continue its own program.
Based on Trump’s “America First” policy and strong personality, it is doubtful he, rightfully, would ever consider going to Pyongyang to meet with Kim – even after Kim called for a “new chapter” in relations between North and South. But the same is true about Kim coming to the U.S.
If such a meeting were to take place, where is a matter of which Mohammad blinks first.