By Troy Stangarone
In recent interview with the Reuters, Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump indicated a willingness to speak with Kim Jong-un. While many of stories on Trump’s comments suggested that he would be willing to meet with North Korea’s leader, in his brief comments to Reuters on the matter he actually said “I would speak to him. I would have no problem speaking to him.” What this actually means is unclear, though the suggestion is not out of the mainstream of U.S. precedent in dealing with adversaries. However, Trump’s comments do raise a series of questions in regards to the conditions under which he would be willing to speak with Kim Jong-un.
In principal, there is nothing wrong with speaking with Kim Jong-un. Resolving the standoff over the nuclear issue will require reaching an agreement that Kim Jong-un can sign off on and at some point that may require direct communication. During the Cold War, summit meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev played a key role in reducing tensions and achieving arms reductions between the two super powers. All of this took place after President Reagan had referred to the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire.
More recently, President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign included North Korea among a group of countries whose leaders he would be willing to meet with unconditionally. While he has not meet with Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un, he wrote to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2009 indicating a willingness to improve relations and in 2014 in regards to cooperation in fighting ISIS and to nudge the Ayatollah to conclude a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. In early 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei responded to President Obama’s correspondence. After announcing that the U.S. would restore relations with Cuba, President Obama became the first U.S. president to meet with the leader of Cuba in 50 years at the Summit of the Americas. In both of these circumstances, the context mattered, as it would with any outreach by a potential Trump administration.
However, that lack of detail from the interview does raise five questions about how Trump, if elected president, would reach out to Kim Jong-un?
How would Trump try to speak with Kim Jong-un?
While there have been some suggestions of a meeting, Trump’s remarks leave open a wide range of possibilities beyond an in person meeting. This could be as simple as a letter addressed to Kim Jong-un. In addition to President Obama’s letters to Ayatollah Khamenei, both he and President Bill Clinton wrote letters to Kim Jong-il.
While a letter to the leader of North Korea, would clearly be within U.S. precedent, it seem like something Trump would be unlikely to do. However, Trump’s comments could merely be indicating that he is willing to engage in a dialogue with him. This could be as traditional as having his administration open new talks with North Korea or arranging a phone call with Kim Jong-un.
When would Trump speak to Kim Jong-un?
The timing of any discussion with Kim Jong-un would also be significant. Would Trump seek to speak with Kim Jong-un early on to try and jumpstart negotiations or towards the end of any discussions on North Korea’s nuclear program to try and seal a final deal? Any conversation early in the process would run the risk of being pocketed by the Kim regime and utilized as a propaganda coup.
Would Trump consult with other leaders in the region?
This would be a key question for U.S. regional diplomacy. Park Geun-hye has refrained from holding a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, and Xi Jinping has refrained from meeting with him as well despite China being North Korea’s closest ally. Would Trump consult with Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing before undertaking any initiative to reach out to Kim Jong-un? Without sufficient consolation and buy-in from key stakeholders in the region, a move to reach out personally to Kim Jong-un could weaken efforts to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.
If Trump did meet Kim Jong-un, where would a meeting take place?
If Trump were to decide to meet Kim Jong-un in person, where would a summit take place? Would he be willing to travel to Pyongyang or would he look for a neutral location such as Switzerland where Kim Jong-un studied?
President Obama’s first meeting with Raul Castro was at an international gathering, the Summit of the Americas. To lessen the international significance of a meeting, would Trump favor meeting Kim Jong-un at an international gathering where the meeting would be simply one among many? Kim Jong-un was invited by both Russia and China to their recent celebrations commemorating the end of the Second World War, but ultimately declined to attend. However, as Kim Jong-un has yet to travel anywhere internationally, it raises the question of how feasible a meeting at an international gathering or a neutral location might be.
Any summit in Pyongyang would be highly problematic as North Korea would likely seek to utilize it for its own domestic purposes and run the risk of the meeting being sold, at least in North Korea, as the U.S. president coming to North Korea to accept the wisdom of Kim Jong-un’s position. Though, any summit meeting, in the absence of a nuclear deal, runs the risk of being utilized for domestic political purposes by North Korea.
What would be the content of any discussion?
If a conversation were to take place, the focus and extent of the discussion would be a key part of the process. While Trump gained notoriety for his book The Art of the Deal, the question would remain how involved Trump should be involved in detailed discussions as opposed to a more broader conversation with Kim Jong-un on the need for both sides have their negotiators work towards finding a deal. While there may be a temptation for Trump to become more deeply involved in talks with North Korea, it is difficult for any U.S. president to be well versed in all of the minutia that a negotiation on a topic as complex as North Korea’s nuclear program entails.
In any negotiation, a meeting or conversation with a U.S. president can serve as an important tool of diplomacy. However, it is also one that must be utilized effectively. Given the potential pitfalls of a dialogue with Kim Jung-un, a prospective Trump administration would first need to determine how and when to best utilize any meeting or discussion between Trump and Kim Jong-un while also balancing that discussion with the needs and concerns of U.S. allies and partners in the region.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.