Kim Jong Un’s meeting Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was rife with symbolism but short on concrete promises.
The two leaders made history by briefly setting foot in each other’s countries and vaguely agreed to work toward “denuclearization,” but it remains to be seen exactly how much Kim is willing to budge when it comes to North Korea’s nukes.
In truth, the Moon-Kim summit was just the opening act. The main event will come later this year, perhaps as soon as May or June, when Kim is expected to meet with President Donald Trump. To get a sense of what Trump faces and how he might approach the meeting, VICE News spoke with Victor Cha, who earlier this year was close to becoming Trump’s ambassador to South Korea.
Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., reportedly lost the job under Trump over his objections to the use of a preemptive military strike against North Korea’s weapons program. His resume also includes a stint under President George W. Bush, where he was an adviser on Asia-Pacific affairs, and one of the senior U.S. officials involved in the Six-Party Talks, the most recent round of nuclear negotiations with North Korea in the early 2000s.
We caught Cha shortly after he returned from a recent trip to Seoul. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
VICE News: What changes, if anything, now that Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in have met face to face?
Victor Cha: For one thing, the atmosphere is a lot better. Last December, I think most people thought by May we’d be in a full-blown military crisis with North Korea. So in that sense, it looks like the diplomacy that started generating at the Olympics is going to continue. Moon has agreed to visit North Korea by the fall, then we have the Trump-Kim summit coming up. We’re clearly in a diplomacy cycle right now. That’s not a bad thing, everybody likes peace over war.
Kim Jong Un wrote that this was the start of “the era of peace,” and he and Moon agreed to work toward the “common goal” of denuclearization. Do you believe him?
That was something that was not made clear, at least in terms of the declaration to come out of the summit. We again have a reiteration of this very vague phrase of denuclearization and a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. We don’t see any of this language that North Korea has agreed to in the past. In 2005, the North Koreans said they would abandon all nuclear weapons. We clearly don’t see that now. In 1992, they said they would not develop nor harbor nuclear weapons, and they would not enrich or reprocess materials that could be used for making nuclear bombs. They clearly haven’t made any of those commitments.
In very good Trumpian fashion, we have one episode of a TV show done, but it’s still leaving everyone hanging on the cliff for the next episode, which will be the Trump-Kim summit, where hopefully some of these questions about denuclearization become clearer.
Do you think Trump will actually end up meeting with Kim? And what are the stakes if they do end up sitting down in the same room together?
I think because the Korea summit did not really clear up anything on denuclearization, it actually heightened even more the importance and the expectations surrounding the Trump-Kim meeting. I think it will happen. I think President Moon will come to Washington soon to have a face to face with Donald Trump to tell him what he heard and what they discussed, and I’m certain he will recommend that Trump do the meeting. Moon wants this diplomatic traction to continue.
Trump says he’s the best negotiator in the world so we’re really going to see. I think Kim wants to keep his weapons and Trump is going to have to negotiate in a way that will make him part with those weapons.
Do you believe that Kim will ever give up his nuclear weapons? Is there anything the U.S. could realistically offer to make that happen?
It’s hard to imagine, unless Trump is willing play loose with the alliance commitments. It’s difficult because the packages that have been offered to North Korea in the past — energy assistance, political normalization, economic assistance — these have not been enough.
At the same time, the one thing you can accuse Donald Trump of being is unconventional, and thus far 25 years of conventional diplomacy obviously has not yielded a solution. You couldn’t really blame him if he thought ‘I have to do something unconventional here because everything else hasn't’ worked.’ The danger is that sort of unconventionality could lead to bargaining away equity in our alliances with South Korea and Japan, which might look good immediately but would not be good for long-term alliances in Asia.
What does denuclearization mean to North Korea? And how is that different from what it means to Trump?
I think for Trump what it means is complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, that they give up everything, preferably sooner rather than later. For North Korea, their definition of denuclearization is an aspirational end state after the war is over, after the U.S. poses no threat to North Korea whatsoever. Then they could imagine a world without nuclear weapons.
“[W]hat if we talk directly to the leader and Trump walks and says, ‘Yeah he’s not interested in giving up his weapons’?”
The problem with that end state for a paranoid dictatorship like North Korea is what do you have to do to make them feel secure? That probably means the U.S. ending its security umbrella for South Korea and Japan and possibly reducing forces on the Korean Peninsula. In the future, North Korea might see it as possible to live on a nuclear-free peninsula, but in the meantime they’d be happy to negotiate some sort of arms control deal with the U.S. where they’re recognized as a nuclear weapons state. Those are clearly two different visions.
How would tearing up the Iran deal affect Trump’s negotiations with North Korea?
I think the conventional policy wisdom is that it would not be good, because tearing up the Iran deal would convey to the North Koreans that we can’t be trusted to keep our agreements.
That would be the conventional wisdom, but as we've said Trump is not conventional. So for Trump’s policy wisdom, tearing up the deal which he already hates, in his view doesn’t undercut the U.S position, it strengthens it. The reason it strengthens it is it sends a clear message to the North Koreans that they have to do better than the Iran deal, the Iran deal is not good enough. That would be a different read. Trump is all about leverage. I think he would try to leverage it.
You almost became Trump’s ambassador to South Korea but ultimately withdrew because you objected to the use of a so-called “bloody nose” strike against North Korea. Are you at all worried that Trump will ask Kim Jong Un to disarm, then use his refusal to justify some type of military action?
Certainly that’s the danger of the summit, the danger of an early summit. The summit is like the ultimate end point of diplomacy; that’s why usually summits come at the end of the negotiation, not at the beginning. So if the summit fails, then people might argue diplomacy is done, we’re finished. What does that leave? It only leaves military options.
This is a gamble in that sense, because there hasn’t been any negotiations yet between North Korea and the Trump administration on the nuclear weapon and ballistic missiles. It’s different if you’re talking about a counterpart you have regular interaction and normal communication channels with, but the U.S. and North Korea have not had that. He had to send Pompeo over just to confirm that what the South Koreans were saying is true, that is they were willing to meet and talk about denuclearization.
“The big enchilada has not happened yet.”
On the other hand, you could also say, well, 25 years of what we’ve done in the past has failed, the only way we’re going to get any clarity on this is to talk directly to the leader, but what if we talk directly to the leader and Trump walks and says, ‘Yeah, he’s not interested in giving up his weapons’?
The point of all this is to say, it’s great that all this diplomacy is happening — it’s like cherry blossoms in the spring and summits are springing up around Asia. It’s great because it looks like military hostilities are ending, but it looks like that’s still bubbling just beneath the surface.
Did you get the sense that Trump and his people understand the consequences of starting a war with North Korea?
The only way you could think that a military strike would work in terms of coercing North Korea would be if you calculated that North Korea would not retaliate in way way that could escalate into a general war. And it’s hard for me to see, one, what the evidence is that you could make that calculation, and two, if there is no evidence, what could lead you to assume that they wouldn't do that? Because again, if you're wrong, we’re talking about a war that could kill millions of people.
Where does China fit into this equation? And what did you make of Kim Jong Un’s surprise trip to Beijing last month?
I think Kim didn’t want to go into this meeting with South Korea and the U.S. without China in their corner. I think that’s one of the reasons why they sought to reconcile relations. The other is, China clearly didn’t want to be cut out. I think Trump surprised everybody by agreeing to do this, and they didn’t want to be cut out.
I think Trump’s decision to meet prompted China to move quickly in terms of reconciling with the North. It made sense on both sides. Clearly the North Koreans don’t want to walk into these meetings without anybody in their corner. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was some high-level North Korea-Russia coordination as well, because I’m sure Putin doesn’t want to be left out of all this.
Is there any deal that would make both Trump and Kim Jong Un happy? Is there any way this ends well, or was the meeting with Kim and Moon just the calm before the hopefully-not-nuclear storm?
That’s a good question. That’s why this upcoming summit is so important. It could very well be they reiterate some of the points from the discussion with Moon, maybe say a little bit more on denuclearization, then commission their teams to start negotiating the deals. There could be something like that. What Trump really wants is to elicit a more definitive statement about denuclearization from the North Korean leader and then use his words against them in the negotiations, and say ‘Your leader promised this, you have to negotiate for it,’ because for them the leader’s words are like god’s words.
Should the average American be worried about this? Are you cautiously optimistic, or should we start preparing for World War III?
It’s a good next step in the diplomacy. The big enchilada has not happened yet, which is the Trump-Kim summit, and if that goes OK, then we may be in sort of a period of more negotiations and muddling through. If it goes badly, then we’ve got to start worrying.
Cover image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in raise their hands after signing a joint statement at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, Friday, April 27, 2018. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)