After certain lapse of time, marred by growing anxiety as to the prospects of fulfilling the vision charted in Sentosa, Singapore, last June between US President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-Un of North Korea in relation to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, President Trump received Mr Kim Yong Chol, the chief North Korean negotiator, on 18 January at the White House. The senior official from North Korea delivered a written message from Chairman Kim to the US president.
After the meeting, that lasted almost two hours, the White House announced that a second US-North Korea summit would take place before the end of February at a venue to be announced. Vietnam has been one of the options much talked about for its geographic proximity to North Korea and to the fact, important from an American point of view, that
Vietnam has achieved an economic miracle — an example that the US administration is eager to show to Chairman Kim, who has emphasised plans to promote the North Korean economy.
On Thursday, 24 January, President Trump tweeted that he expects the second summit with Chairman Kim to be “another good meeting… much potential”.
In the meantime, US officials have been looking forward to beginning working-level meetings with North Korean negotiators to be chaired, on the American side, by special representative to the negotiations Stephen Biegun and Vice Foreign Minister Choi Sun Hee on the North Korean side.
Upon scheduling the second summit, a spokesman for the South Korean government said it would be a turning point in what he called “solidifying a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.” Meanwhile, a senior South Korean official, Chun-in Moon, special adviser to the Korean president for unification and national security affairs, made a stop in Cairo two weeks ago where he gave a lecture at the American University in Cairo. In his remarks, he drew a parallel between the peace overtures of President Moon Jae-in and the peace initiative of late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat.
In an interview published by The Egyptian Gazette on Friday, 20 January, he stressed that South Korea has been moving on two tracks simultaneously, in order to reach peace on the Peninsula. One is the denuclearisation of North Korea. The second is the lifting of sanctions imposed on Pyongyang.
In fact, one of the major obstacles facing American and North Korean negotiators is the question of sequencing the denuclearisation process and the lifting of myriad sanctions imposed on North Korea, whether United Nations-based or bilaterally, like the ones decreed by Washington or by Seoul. A renowned American scientist, who had previously worked on the North Korean nuclear programme and was among the American negotiators during the Six-Power Talks, once said that it would take not less than 15 years to dismantle the nuclear arsenal and facilities in North Korea. Whether this is the official American position or not, it is difficult to say.
It is interesting to note that before sending Kim Yong Chol to Washington to confer with President Trump, and later with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chairman Kim had boarded his bullet-proof train and headed to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was the fourth summit between the two leaders in the course of the last 12 months, a fact that proves that the North Korean leader does not want to negotiate with the Americans from a position of weakness, and needs to make sure that China is backing him in the peace negotiations. If they succeed it would be a plus for Chinese foreign policy. If it all fails, it won’t affect Sino-North Korean relations adversely. Plus, Pyongyang would have the full backing of China in case the United States would think of retaliating militarily, or choking the North Korean economy.
Given the domestic political situation in Washington and the gridlock that has gripped the Beltway after the Democrats took the majority in the House of Representatives, effective 1 January, the US administration would like to accomplish a breakthrough in foreign policy to be credited to President Trump.
This could explain why Pompeo in an interview with Martha MacCallum of Fox News, broadcast Wednesday, 23 January, emphasised that the process of denuclearisation “is going to take some time”. There has been real progress made, he said, adding that Chairman Kim continues to assure President Trump he “is intent on denuclearisation.”
The tone differs markedly in the statements of Ambassador John Bolton, White House national security adviser, and other US officials late last year that had insisted on maintaining a hard line against North Korea, demanding “the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” of North Korea — a hardline position that prompted Kim Jong-Un to cancel a planned meeting between Kim Yong Chol and Pompeo that was due to take place in November.
There are quarters in Washington, including American media and some think tanks, that have persistently questioned the true motives of North Korea in engaging the Trump administration in peace talks. It was not, probably, sheer coincidence that The Washington Post, three days after the White House meeting between the US president and the North Korean senior envoy, gave prominent space to a recent report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies that dealt with what it claimed to be a secret missile site, the Sino-Ri base, in North Korea. According to the report, the base is one of approximately 20 undeclared missile operating bases in the North. The centre argued in the report that, “while diplomacy is critical… any agreement must take account of all the operational missile base facilities that are a threat to the United States and South Korean security.”
Be that as it may, the official North Korean news agency ran a news story after the return of Kim Yong Chol from his trip to the US capital on the briefing he provided to Chairman Kim, who was pleased with the results of the White House meeting. What was most revealing about his positive reaction was the big smile on the face of Kim Yong-Un, distributed by the news agency. Judging from this alone, it seems the coming summit may reach more substantive results that go beyond the generalities reached in Sentosa last June.
* The writer is former assistant to Egypt foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Path Forward.