This morning, I woke up knowing that in May, the key event in North Korea will be us bringing a group of volunteers to lead our first entrepreneurship workshop in the country this year. Then I saw the news that Trump had agreed to meet Kim Jong Un in May. I thought I had woken up to an alternate reality.
We believed that Trump, of any US political leader, had the highest likelihood of risking meeting directly with Kim Jong Un. Trump is willing to flout the conventions that such a meeting had too high a political cost, ignore the advice of foreign policy elites, make risky maneuvers for breakthroughs, and like many business leaders, believe in the power of personal relations in driving deals. Regardless of what we think of his other policies, this is a bold move fraught with risk - risk that a deal does not materialize or whose terms result in a backlash against him in DC.
Some things to think about regarding this meeting:
Reminiscent of Nixon to China? Trump can claim that his maximum pressure broke North Korea and that he engineered a diplomatic breakthrough through a hardline approach. Both sides need to walk away claiming victory. Furthermore, Trump’s engagement approach seemed to be centered around a tight coterie in the White House (Pottinger/Allison?), very much like how Kissinger went around the CIA and State Department to undertake a fresh approach to China.
Tillerson’s comments about how far the US was from negotiations with North Korea shortly before this bombshell announcement, and Joseph Yun’s resignation, continues to highlight the sidelining of the State Department in US-North Korea negotiations. It seems that the process is managed tightly by the White House and possibly coordinated by Allison Hooker, who was present at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
This meet might look sudden and ill-prepared. And Trump being Trump, that might be the case. In any Presidential summit, issues are normally ironed out in advance of a meeting. But at the same time, it is also likely that the White House has been negotiating with the North Koreans since last year to lay the groundwork for eventual talks, with meetings at Pyeongchang to seal the deal. There is much we don’t know yet about how advanced discussions are at this stage.
Moon Jae In is starting to look like a diplomatic genius for brokering a meeting between the US and North Korea. With a South Korea- North Korea summit to happen before the US- North Korea meet, he will further cement South Korea’s central position in negotiations.
Despite the breakthrough (and it is one), there is still a high risk that a compromise position that satisfies all sides cannot be found. But both leaders have put their reputation on the line and this risky maneuver has given us one of the best chances to reach for a comprehensive resolution of the issue.
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