03 May 2018

The recently-concluded meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has enraptured the world, raising hopes and expectations that peace, stability and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula are imminent.

What does the meeting widely touted as a landmark success mean for the impending Trump-Kim summit, where the outcomes would arguably be far more important for geopolitics and security in Northeast Asia?

Three takeaways from the Moon-Kim meeting strongly suggest that the impending summit between Kim and the leader of the free world will not fail.

Takeaway 1: Kim Jong-un is a Master Diplomat

This is immediately apparent from the meeting itself, as well as the extensive diplomatic legwork done before and after. The many symbolic gestures that took place during the meeting suggest a charm offensive by Pyongyang toward Seoul, targeted at winning hearts and minds.

Knowing full well the world's media was watching, Kim unexpectedly invited Moon to step into the northern side of the military demarcation line separating the North and South, before holding hands with Moon and stepping back into the South. This may not mean much to the casual observer, but to South Koreans, the gesture highlighted how arbitrary the separation along the 38th Parallel was and reignited nationalistic hopes of achieving a reunified Korea.

Another symbolic gesture was Kim stating his willingness to visit the Blue House in Seoul, which would be a monumental first for a North Korean leader. Other concessions included ceasing all hostile acts along the Demilitarized Zone, agreeing to discuss a peace treaty to replace the existing armistice, and arranging more reunions for Korean families separated during the Korean War.

These moves press all the right buttons in convincing Moon and the South Koreans he represents that the North is committed to peace and reconciliation. Kim and his foreign policy advisers had clearly orchestrated this masterful concoction of diplomatic goodwill.

Beyond interactions with the South, Kim, in recent weeks, has shown remarkable savviness in navigating regional geopolitics. In early April, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited Moscow to speak with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, reportedly discussing ways to resolve tensions on the Korean Peninsula. This followed Kim's widely-publicized trip to Beijing in late March where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Following the Moon-Kim meeting, the Blue House told the press that Kim is ready to hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at any time to discuss the issue of Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s.

This barrage of outreach activities targeted at engaging both allies Moscow and Beijing and long-time adversaries Tokyo suggests a deliberate strategy of laying the diplomatic groundwork in preparation for the meeting that truly matters the Trump-Kim summit likely to happen in the next month or so. These diplomatic overtures are likely to intensify building up to the summit.

Takeaway 2: There is Some Consensus on Desired Outcomes

Besides diplomatic posturing, the Moon-Kim meeting saw significant progress made toward the desired outcomes of both sides. The joint statement announced the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, with both sides to carry out disarmament in a phased manner.

These are generic statements that require unpacking. For example, what does complete denuclearization mean to Pyongyang, and does its definition gel with the U.S. understanding that it should mean complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization? What does disarmament mean to Seoul? Does it require the lifting of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the removal of American troops from South Korea, or the dismantling of the U.S.-South Korea alliance that forms the bedrock of U.S. security policy in the Asia-Pacific?

Most importantly, what are Seoul and Washington willing to give up to achieve a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, and what terms will Pyongyang accept to give up its nuclear deterrent? This could include carrots like suspending UN sanctions, gaining economic incentives, normalizing U.S.-North Korea relations and obtaining security guarantees.

While the details remain sketchy, the Moon-Kim meeting did clarify the desired ends, setting the stage for U.S.-North Korea talks to discuss the means. There is now some consensus and common ground forged between Pyongyang and Washington even before the summit takes place. While the White House has urged caution and attempted to temper expectations on what can be accomplished at the Trump-Kim summit, this pre-negotiated common ground means that a failed summit is not an option.

Takeaway 3: Boxing Trump into a Tight Spot

Lastly, Pyongyang's skilled diplomacy in engaging Seoul, Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo is effectively boxing Washington into a tight spot.

Given Trump's penchant for flashy showmanship, he would want to be remembered in history as the U.S. President who ended the Korean nuclear crisis once and for all. With a golden opportunity to take credit and cement his legacy, he would be reluctant to preside over a failed summit especially with the weight of expectation from his Japanese and Korean allies, and the broader international community.

However, while the summit won't fail, how successful it will end up depends on Pyongyang's specific demands and Washington's baseline negotiating position.

The worst-case scenario but still constituting a successful' summit would be reiterating what was agreed during the Moon-Kim meeting, and emphasizing that the details will be worked out by officials on both sides. On the other hand, the best-case would be reaching an agreement on the concessions both sides are willing to make and ironing out broad details of how denuclearization would take place.

Will Denuclearization Be for Real This Time?

As I've written elsewhere, there remains a significant risk that North Korea will revert to its nuclear program in future, notwithstanding what it may agree to in any international negotiation. Its actions over the past decades do not provide much reassurance that it will commit to denuclearization. Indeed, the devil is in the details and the mechanisms through which denuclearization is executed and monitored.

Nonetheless, there is room for cautious optimism, judging by how the Moon-Kim meeting has unfolded. The latter serves as an appetizer for the Trump-Kim main course'. This summit won't fail, but how Trump handles the North Korean leader and whether the issue can move towards eventual resolution will serve as a litmus test of U.S. forcefulness and resolve in Asia under Trump's administration.

Jansen Tham is a 2nd year Masters in Public Policy (MPP) student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.