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The Photo Op Summit

A day before the summit with North Korea, the two sides appear to be as far apart [1] on key issues as ever:

The working-level sessions, including those led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have foundered repeatedly over basic issues of what the summit should be about and an inability to close fundamental gaps in understanding over North Korean denuclearization.

The distance between the U.S. and North Korean positions at such a late stage in the preparations means that the summit meeting between Kim and Trump will be little more than a photo op at best. Both leaders hope to use the meeting as a propaganda coup: Kim gets the recognition he craves, and Trump presumably thinks it will make him appear statesmanlike despite all evidence to the contrary. That is unfortunate, as it squanders an opening that South Korean President Moon did so much to create and allows hard-liners here to dismiss further engagement with North Korea as fruitless. Many of the critics of Trump’s North Korea policy have questioned the decision to have this meeting precisely because we fear that it will hurt the prospects of continued engagement when it yields nothing, and it still seems that way the day before the meeting.

There are things that the U.S. and North Korea might be able to agree to, such as making North Korea’s testing moratorium permanent, but one of the main stumbling blocks has been and will continue to be the insistence on the DPRK’s disarmament. North Korean officials have consistently refused to commit to anything like that, and it seems practically guaranteed that they will not make such a commitment:

U.S. negotiators have been unable to get the North Koreans to offer a substantive pledge on denuclearization up front, which has been the chief demand of the Trump administration.

The issue plagued a May 27 meeting in Panmunjom between U.S. and North Korean diplomats, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The talks began with the North Korean side, led by Choe, saying denuclearization should not be on the table for the Singapore summit — a position rejected by the Americans as a nonstarter.

The two sides did not meet for two days, in part because the North Korean delegation did not have the authority to negotiate without additional guidance from Pyongyang, until reconvening briefly May 30 for a session that made little progress in resolving the impasse.

That wouldn’t necessarily be as much of a problem if North Korea and the U.S. keep talking and trying to find something they can both accept. Based on what Trump has said recently, there is reason to doubt that this will be allowed to happen:


“But I really feel confident,” he added. “I feel that Kim Jong Un wants to do something great for his people, and he has that opportunity. And he won’t have that opportunity again. It’s never going to be there again [bold mine-DL].”

If Trump and his advisers treat tomorrow’s meeting as the only opportunity for an agreement, they are all but admitting that they were never serious about reaching an agreement in the first place. We can hope that they choose to treat it as the start of a long, involved diplomatic process that is needed to find an acceptable compromise, but I suspect that they won’t be willing to do that.

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12 Comments To "The Photo Op Summit"

#1 Comment By Kent On June 11, 2018 @ 8:10 am

This certainly will be just a photo-op. The United States slaughtered millions of North Koreans during the war. They haven’t forgotten that. And the United States has broken every agreement it has made with North Korea for the last 30 years. They haven’t forgotten that either. Disarmament is insanity.

#2 Comment By Uncle Billy On June 11, 2018 @ 8:52 am

North Korea will not get rid of their nukes. Nukes are Kim’s life insurance policy. The best that we can hope for is for Kim to freeze his nuclear program and that the US would then pull all American troops from South Korea. Not an ideal solution, but perhaps the best that we can hope for.

#3 Comment By SDS On June 11, 2018 @ 8:55 am

Anyone who thought they could just threaten NK into folding immediately (TRUMP)is just plain ignorant…
AND this would never be anything but a photo- op as the negotiator-in-chief (TRUMP) doesn’t know anything about the subjects involved…

#4 Comment By SteveM On June 11, 2018 @ 10:11 am

It could be that Xi is pulling the strings, not Trump. Xi has had two heart to hearts with Kim. Xi tells Kim, fix it with the U.S. and China will guarantee your safety against U.S. instigated regime change.

Xi also tells Kim, look we’ve built a much more prosperous society based on technocratic management while keeping the Party Nomenklatura happy and satisfied. You could replicate the same model to advance economically like South Korea while maintaining your leadership hierarchy. And moreover, the future is with Eurasia, not the U.S. Play nice with the U.S. now because they have the muscle and then get in bed with us (BRI, AIIB, SCO) for economic development.

If Kim has had that epiphany, then Xi gets what he wants, removal of the NK nuisance while China continues its inexorable development of the massive Eurasian marketplace.

With this scenario, Trump would be declared a diplomatic genius even though Kim’s strategic position had already been wired by China. This could actually be a successful summit, with the U.S. political apparatchiks clueless as to why.

#5 Comment By LouisM On June 11, 2018 @ 11:23 am

Im glad the US and NKorea are meeting but Im sick of the hype. Im sick of the experts. Im sick of the comentators. Most of the experts and commentators don’t know anything and if hey did then they wouldn’t/couldn’t share it with you.

Have the meeting. Give us a progress report. Other than that leave it alone. I know the media needs to fill time and they need the experts and commentators to give a moment by moment replay like its a sports franchise and one can always tell the worst media outlets because they will be the most emotional and the most exaggerated and sensationalized.

#6 Comment By b. On June 11, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

“Kim gets the recognition he craves”

That’s a bit short on a complex topic, because this was an issue for his father as well.

Kim wants recognition of North Korea as a sovereign nation entitled to be safe from acts of aggression, especially “regime change”. One can argue that North Korea hasn’t exactly done a lot to accord the same privilege to South Korea, but that is the kind of mess created when colonial powers, or a victorious WW2 superpower go and “build” or split nations. Between Adenauer and the Allies, the de-unification of Germany was covered with a convenient narrative – the US did not want a neutral, disarmed united Germany, it needed the Wehrmacht – but the King Solomon approach to the Korean Peninsula was a different “story” altogether.

Now Kin wants that recognition as a sovereign nation – possibly with a claim to reunification on terms not defined by the West – back up by nuclear warheads on ICBMs. He wants the US and the so-called “international community” of “allies” to acknowledge that North Korea is no longer vulnerable to conventional coercion, and that related attempts should cease.

Kim does not “crave” a photo with Trump for reasons of vanity.

In a way, Kim is as native as Trump about this, in a different context. Given the history of sustained US meddling, encroachment and agitation against the one nuclear power that has the most convincing claim to be an extinction-level threat to US supremacy and even existence, Russia, it is not realistic to expect US conventional aggression to cease just because the target nation has nuclear warheads. But “regime change” and other “irreversible” and “permanent” steps of “behavior modification” are off the table, at least until some US General manages to convince some US President that a first strike will be “successful”.

If the US is not even conceding that its own allies have sovereign interests and concerns that have to be respected – trade, JCOPA etc. – then Kim would have to be a fool to expect that one US President’s promise is worth another. Gorbachev and Yeltsin both had their own slow-motion version of the “Libya option” play out in their time.

North Korea will not get the recognition it wants and needs, because no other nation is getting that either under current US foreign policy. Kim has to expect that. His main concern has to be to ensure that South Korea, and the Moon government specifically, realizes that it might be feasible to work out agreements without the US, that it is not feasible at all to work out agreements involving the US, and that US unilateralism and impunitivism make the need for bilateral arrangements ever more pressing. South Korea needs to find leverage and bargaining power with the US. Maybe it can find a way to obtain guarantees and commitments from Russia and China to back up a bilateral non-aggression pact and a separate bilateral peace agreement (leaving the US as the last belligerent of the Korean War), or maybe it will have to decide to lean on China alone. Maybe it can put pressure on the US by indicating that US basing rights and use of South Korean harbors and airfields for military purposes is no longer to be taken for granted. But first, South Korea will have to recognize and admit that it is being used by the US for purposes that increase, day by day, the threats the country is facing.

#7 Comment By CRB On June 11, 2018 @ 12:54 pm

We’ll see tomorrow but I predict Mr. Larison and the naysayers will be very surprised by the outcome.

#8 Comment By CRB On June 11, 2018 @ 12:58 pm

Forgot to post my own prediction: End to Korean Conflict is announced and DPRK is placed under US protection umbrella in exchange for denuclearization.

#9 Comment By Hopeful On June 11, 2018 @ 9:27 pm

Good luck to Trump. I don’t have much confidence in him, but we’ll see. Maybe something good will come of it. It would be very good to see outlaw and pariah countries like N. Korea, Iran, and Israel, which are regularly voted the most hated or feared countries in the world, finally forced to truly relinquish their nuclear weapons programs. The world would breath a sigh of relief.

#10 Comment By a spencer On June 12, 2018 @ 6:07 am


Okay, I give up. What’s different? Kim got the flag placement he wanted and showed his people that he brought the nasty Americans to heel, potentially ridding the Peninsula of them, but beyond that? Trump admitted, “six months from now this might look stupid”.

#11 Comment By a spencer On June 12, 2018 @ 6:32 am

In the last 48 hours, Kim has become a “great personality” and our neighbors have to be sent to the pits of hell.

#12 Comment By CRB On June 12, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

a spencer,

All of that is necessary for Kim to sell his people on change while surviving the process. I’m not offended by the optics.

If in 6 months the talks appear to have been a waste of time, so be it. US is not worse off for the effort. Legitimizing/delegitimizing is overrated.