President Trump has agreed to sit down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, marking the first time a sitting US president will meet a North Korean leader face-to-face. But are the North Koreans really willing to give up their nuclear program? Or will Trump’s self-professed deal making skills actually be put to use?
On Point guest host Meghna Chakrabarti was joined by Jonathan Cheng, Seoul bureau chief a The Wall Street Journal. Katharine Moon, Professor of Asian Studies and Political Science at Wellesley College and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy, as well as Ethan Epstein, associate editor at The Weekly Standard.
"These are two very unusual leaders who like to take the spotlight," Moon said of Trump-Kim summit. "The issue is, will they be able to discuss the details? My answer is no."
On the “very sudden” decision to take the meeting, apparently without consulting top aides:
Moon: This is problematic because it creates such high expectations when the president of the United States accepts an invitation that is an indirect invitation, which the North Koreans have not yet confirmed still and he accepted it. So we have yet to see whether a formal agreement is reached about actually meeting.
On whether or not a deal can actually be made
Epstein: North Korea’s analysis here, which was frankly the correct analysis from its point, is that the only way that it could maintain its regime was to become a nuclear power for fear of intervention from the outside. They saw what happened to Saddam, they saw what happened to Gaddafi, and the only way that they're going to denuclearize is if the United States withdraws its troops from South Korea. And I just don't think the U.S. is going to make that concession. So I still think we're stuck with this dilemma here where I'm not really sure there is an arrangement that can be reached that will be satisfactory to both parties.
On who can take credit for getting the ball rolling
Moon: (South Korean president Moon Jae-in) had been sending out numerous olive branches to North Korea since he got elected in May. And what he did was use back channels to try to get the North Koreans to come participate in the Olympics. So I can't give Mr. Kim Jong-un the credit for suddenly changing his mind. And we know, those of us who study North Korea, that they act based on domestic political interests. So I'm not so sure how much external relations like sanctions might have actually pressured it.
On the human rights issues
Epstein: ‘Human rights’ is not a term that has been uttered in this conversation, which I think just shows how much of a threat the nuclear problem is — that there are all these other things that are genuine atrocities that we're not even discussing at this point just because the nuclear problem is so urgent. And I think North Korea will be loath to discuss human rights in any context particularly in a meeting with President Trump. But if we wanted to open up the discussion to other things besides missile tests and nuclear weapons I think human rights are obviously very important subject as well.
On the effect of sanctions
Moon: Yes, they have hurt the North Korean economy. The question is have they hurt the North Korean economy so badly that they've created the so-called desperation that American media folks and politicos talk about? My answer is no. North Koreans are not desperate economically right now. North Korea's economy its GDP has been growing in the past couple of years.
On the wedge between countries
Moon: Everybody worries about North Korea throwing a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. But I think right now it's the U.S. that could end up putting a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. South Korea will continue to work with North Korea on improving North-South relations. For South Korea, the North-South relations is not part of foreign policy. It is a separate department run by a separate ministry, the Ministry of Unification. So it's a quasi internal domestic, partly foreign policy, but it is definitely not a foreign affairs issue.
Jonathan Cheng, Seoul bureau chief, the Wall Street Journal. (@JChengWSJ)
Katharine Moon, expert on U.S.-Korea relations and the politics of East Asia, Professor of Asian Studies and Political Science, Wellesley College, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy. (@kathyhsmoon)
Ethan Epstein, associate editor, The Weekly Standard. (@ethanepstiiiine)
From The Reading List:
The Weekly Standard: Three Questions About the Trump-Kim Meeting — "The meeting will reportedly be held 'before May.' But a lot could go wrong between now and then."
The Wall Street Journal: Trump-Kim Summit Has U.S. Allies Scrambling — "President Donald Trump’s decision to accept a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un caught the world off guard."
We’ve had a couple of days now to let it sink in. President Donald Trump and Kim Jung-Un are poised to meet in a history-making summit. The first time a sitting US President has agreed to such a meeting. This could be exactly the kind of bold gambit that breaks 60 years of escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. Or it could hasten war. That’s why Korea experts look on this moment with admiration and trepidation.
This hour, On Point: The potential risks and rewards in the sudden summit between the U.S. and North Korea.
This program aired on March 12, 2018.