The ongoing diplomatic process in the Korean Peninsula is historic in many ways. Donald Trump is going to be the first sitting U.S. President to meet a North Korean leader this May. Also, if both the Koreas agree to hold a Moon- Kim summit it would be the first face to face meeting between leaders of the two countries after a decade. India as an important player in the Asia Pacific welcomed the possibility of a dialogue between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. India hopes that the dialogue will pave way for peace and reconciliation in the peninsula. Also, it would address the proliferation linkages of DPRK’s nuclear and missile programme.


Amidst common failures and fleeting successes of prolonged diplomatic squabble on North Korea, the proposed dialogue between US and North Korea might prove to be a breakthrough. While momentum for the May security summit continues to grow, South Korea which has already initiated a dialogue on “reunification” has pointed out that North’s settlement of peace with the U.S. is absolutely fundamental to peace conditions in the Korean Peninsula. President Moon Jae-in said, “Settlement of peace on the Korean Peninsula cannot be achieved solely by agreements between the two Koreas.”  He added, “It needs to be guaranteed by the U.S. and that requires a normalized relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, which must further advance to economic cooperation between the two countries.”


While an inter-Korean summit might take place in April before Trump-Kim talks, President Moon Jae-in has suggested that “depending on the progress, there can be a three-way summit among South and North Korea and the United States.”


Coming to Japan, its Foreign Minister Taro Kono has requested Washington to address certain issues during the summit including Pyongyang’s commitment to resolve the abduction issue (related to North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s) and development of midrange ballistic missiles that can target Japan easily.


China is the trickiest player in this situation. Just when the international community was analyzing the security momentum on the hypothetical assumption that North Korea is no more obedient to its long time ally, China, the latter reasserted its relevance to the talks by opening up about Kim Jong Un’s “unofficial visit” to China. It has a two-pronged implication. Firstly, it indicates that China is going to play a leading role in the rapprochement process (if any) in the Korean Peninsula. Secondly, for North Korea, it will give out a message to the international community that China is still very much a major ally of North Korea.


Although the international community is hopeful about a peaceful resolution in the Korean Peninsula the press bytes coming from the U.S. media sounds otherwise.  It records a flurry of skeptical views from different people.


First,  the new U.S. security adviser John Bolton thinks North Korea is merely using the talks as a pretext to “buy time” for their nuclear programme. In an interview he recently said, “I think that their history over decades is that they like Iran, like others, use negotiations to buy time to conceal their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile activity. The meeting with President Trump, when it comes, I think will be a real opportunity to see if that is the same policy they are pursuing as they have so many times in the past.“They have repeatedly committed to give up nuclear weapons and they have repeatedly lied about it.”


Similarly, Joseph De Thomas of Pennsylvania State University thinks, “Achieving the Trump administration’s stated goal for this summit, the complete denuclearization of North Korea, has a very low probability of success”. William Cohen, who headed the Defense Department in Clinton presidency, said, “In my own experience in dealing with the North Koreans, there's never been a discussion that they will denuclearize...I don't believe that they're committed to doing that now…I'm skeptical that they would really get rid of all their nuclear weapons.”


There are varied possibilities of the upcoming Kim-Trump summit. To think about the most positive outcome relations might normalize between Pyongyang and Washington leading to the lifting of sanctions, development of a tacit alliance between North and South Korea. This can push China to become more belligerent owing to the fact that it will lose its only ally in the region and for Tokyo it might question Washington’s security commitments in the region. But on the contrary if the summit is a failure it might lead to a “dangerous escalation” in the region. This might lead to nuclear confrontation, which will have global consequences shutting all the chances of North-South rapprochement.


Trump administration has to realize that Pyongyang has to be dealt with cautious realism. In fact, China’s concept of ‘nuclear freeze’ could be an important point to begin with. This will give out a clear message that North Korea is willing to work on limiting its nuclear arsenal without emphasizing denuclearization. In light of the security environment prevailing in the Asia-Pacific it is important for the U.S. to impose qualitative as well as quantitative checks on North Korea’s strategic capabilities to use nuclear force. It’s important for the U.S. to first work on deliberations that produce an agreement to cease North Korea’s nuclear force enhancing activities before attempting to denuclearize DPRK. This is important because a combat ready arsenal is threatening for a geographically proximate U.S. Very recently, North Korea’s National Reunification Institute Director Ri Jong Hyok said, “Now is the high time to put an end to the U.S. anachronistic anti-DPRK hostile policy and its futile moves of sanctions and pressure”, underlining the fact that the tough sanctions imposed by the international community was perhaps one important reason to bring North Korea to table. Ri Jong Hyok also said, “The United States should properly understand our position and come out in a manner of sincere and serious attitude for positively contributing to maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”


It is important to point out here that the fact that the Trump administration can decertify the Iran Deal puts into question America’s ability to respect negotiated agreements in the realm of international law. In such a scenario it will be difficult for Kim to have faith on unilateral U.S. guarantees. North Korea might call for the support of Russia and China, as well as UN Security Council endorsement.


Not long ago Trump threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury” and insulted “Rocket Man” Kim for being on a “suicide mission”. Kim retorted by referring to Trump as a “mentally deranged US dotard”. The prelude to such a historic summit resonates with the mercurial character of the leaders. The stakes are higher than ever and time will tell if the actors are nearing the endgame.


[This opinion piece forms a part of the themed article series “North Korea as a Global Existential Threat” of the Science, Technology & Security forum.]


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.