|U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands at Panmunjeom in this June 2019 photo. They are not expected to meet each other ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, according to diplomatic experts. / Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
Despite President Moon Jae-in's publicized wishes and an envisaged visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun to Seoul, another summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump is not on the cards, as there is little to motivate the North toward resuming their denuclearization talks, diplomatic experts said Thursday.
Trump and Kim have had three meetings ― in Singapore in June 2018, in Vietnam in February 2019 and at Panmunjeom in June 2019.
According to Cheong Wa Dae, Moon recently relayed his wishful message about a summit to the White House in a bid to reactivate his "Korea peace initiative" amid the stalled diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington following the collapse of the Hanoi summit. An official added the U.S. side was "making efforts for that."
In addition, Biegun, who is in charge of the U.S. government's negotiations with the North, is expected to arrive here next week, sparking speculation that he may deliver a message to Kim from Trump, including possibly offering another meeting ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election in the United States.
An Associated Press report also said the Trump administration was anticipating the possibility of an "October surprise" before the election.
"Though there is always a chance, I am highly doubtful that there will be another Kim-Trump summit before the election," U.S. Naval War College professor Terence Roehrig told The Korea Times.
"As the U.S. gets closer to November, the administration will become ever more focused on the campaign, particularly if President Trump's standing in the polls continues to slip. Leaders have often undertaken a foreign policy initiative to distract from trouble at home, but I doubt this would make much difference in the election and would carry tremendous risk."
Daniel Sneider, an expert on Korean and Japanese foreign policy at Stanford University, expressed a similar view.
"I have seen the various reports, including Biegun's remarks in Washington, which seemed to me to clearly rule out a summit ahead of the election. Given the pandemic situation in the U.S., which is increasingly severe, and Trump's declining political fortunes, it is difficult to see what benefit he could derive from another summit," Sneider told The Korea Times.
"Everything that Trump does is focused on his re-election and a summit with Kim Jong-un is a highly risky venture from an electoral point of view."
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst and North Korea watcher at the Heritage Foundation, told The Korea Times, "President Moon's advocacy for another U.S.-North Korean summit is based more on wishful thinking than on any expectation of success on achieving North Korean denuclearization."
Diplomatic experts have reached a consensus that there are few things that will bring the North back to negotiations.
"The chief item that North Korea would be interested in is some element of sanctions relief, but Washington is unlikely to alter its current position on sanctions. Regardless of the details on where this denuclearization process goes next, there must be an understanding that it is a long term effort that will need to be a series of many incremental steps if it has any chance of succeeding," Roehrig said, adding that there must be lower expectations of what "success" looks like ― complete denuclearization is unlikely but continued dialogue can achieve some positive results.
Sneider said, "Given what we have seen in the previous summits, the North Korean regime is not interested in a serious denuclearization deal ― the best that come would be a partial step in exchange for effectively lifting sanctions."
Van Jackson, a professor of Victoria University of Wellington and former Pentagon official, told The Korea Times that nobody thinks the summits are serious and even mainstream media recognize that Trump was just doing the summits for publicity, which former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton's book confirmed.
"But the bigger problem is that Kim Jong-un would only do the summits if he got some sanctions relief," Jackson added.
They expressed concerns that Trump's idiosyncrasy may motivate him to unexpectedly meet Kim, but any results from a possible yet ill-advised summit would be a failure
"So maybe Trump wants a summit so bad that he'd give Kim sanctions relief without restraining its nuclear capabilities. But that would be insane. And I actually support the idea of sanctions relief for North Korea, but only as part of a larger strategy, not as a one-off decision to score a photo op with Kim," Jackson said.
"A simple and simplistic agreement such as a terse peace agreement that doesn't address North Korea's conventional force threat could have dangerous ramifications for allied deterrence and defense capabilities. A comprehensive, well-crafted denuclearization agreement that carefully delineates all parties' responsibilities would take far longer than four months to craft," Klingner said.
Due to a deadlock in the North Korea-U.S. nuclear talks, inter-Korean relations has also been back to square one ― despite three South-North summits. In that respect, it is doubtful that Moon's push for independent inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation will gain momentum, according to the pundits.
"I understand why Cheong Wa Dae is promoting this idea. President Moon is clearly desperate to resurrect his engagement strategy with North Korea. As far as I can see, the North Korean regime is only seeking a full break by Seoul with the United Nations sanctions regime," Sneider said.
"Is President Moon prepared to do so, even at the risk of the alliance with the U.S.? If he is, then perhaps Kim will see him again. If not, why would he bother?"