It’s one step forward and two steps back as a planned summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be back on track following last-ditch diplomatic efforts from southern counterpart Moon Jae-in. While the high-stakes meeting may proceed as planned, experts say it’s unlikely to live up to the hype as ambiguity remains about the definition of denuclearization and whether the U.S. can convince the Kim regime that it can remain in power after giving up its weapons.
South Korean President Moon met the North Korean leader Saturday for a second time at the border village of Panmunjom, a month after the pair convened there to proclaim “a new era of peace” on the peninsula. The meeting came after the two Korean leaders were blindsided by Trump’s abrupt pullout Wednesday of a planned bilateral June 12 summit in Singapore, and was convened on Kim’s request, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. Moon told reporters Sunday that his “friend” Kim wants to make his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump a success, and had reaffirmed his commitment to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Trump confirmed Sunday that a delegation of U.S. officials visited North Korea to “make arrangements” for the summit, after the State Department said that a team had been sent to the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, separating the North from the South. But experts are hardly optimistic about a breakthrough, even if the meeting goes ahead. Analysts tell TIME that Trump’s volatile handling of the summit may have alienated U.S. allies and disrupted preparations.
“At this point, the chances of a Trump-Kim summit appear better than even,” said Adam Mount, a senior defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. But, he added, “the parties have lost a crucial week of preparation in a schedule that was already rushed. There is little indication that the sides have agreed on an acceptable concept of denuclearization, which is necessary for the summit to make any progress.”
The U.S. defines denuclearization as North Korea giving up weapons in exchange for non-aggression assurances and economic aid. Whereas for Pyongyang it has always been about dismantling the U.S.–East Asian alliance system, removing American troops from South Korea and Japan and dismantling the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.” The question of how the two leaders will reconcile this disparity remains unanswered, and Pyongyang watchers have long been skeptical Kim would relinquish his nuclear weapons.
A broad liberalization of the North Korean economy that involves the free movement of people and information is unlikely too, says Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. “However much Kim Jong Un wants to be a reformer, fundamental questions of survival outweigh that,” Graham said, adding that Kim’s father Kim Jong Il faced the same predicament.
“The best that can be hoped for from the South Korean perspective is that the North will agree to new bilateral projects, but I strongly suspect they will be subject to the same caveated zoned approach to development that Kaesong and Kumgang were” Graham adds, referring to a joint North–South Korea economic zone and tourism project developed under previous liberal South Korean governments.
But in forging ahead with direct diplomacy, Moon has “brought South Korea and its interests into the middle of the frame after a year when much of the focus was on escalation between Washington and Pyongyang,” says Stephen Pomper, U.S. Program Director at the International Crisis Group. “He didn’t give in to frustration, he gave Kim a platform to say some things about denuclearization that will play well in the U.S., and he again showed Trump the mesmerizing all-consuming media impact that a summit can have — something that’s bound to appeal.”
While resuming plans for the summit is no doubt a victory for Seoul, which has a lot at stake in the event of increased hostility, it may be that Kim has gained a big advantage from Trump’s flip-flopping on their original plans. The North Korean leader could now “continue to play nice in public but stall out the process behind closed doors,” said Mount, of Federation of American Scientists. “Trump has ensured that he will take most of the blame for a failure of diplomacy.”