U.S.-North Korea Summit: Trump, Kim and What’s Different Now

MIN READApr 15, 2018 | 14:24 GMT

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visiting North Korea


After more than a year of soaring tensions and heated rhetoric between the United States and North Korea, two key summits on the horizon could change the dynamic completely. Following an inter-Korean summit on April 27, President Donald Trump will potentially sit down with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for direct talks.

For more on what we should or should not expect from U.S.-North Korea talks and what may be different this time around, Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton speaks with Vice President for Strategic Analysis Rodger Baker for this episode of the Stratfor Podcast.

Related Reading

Cheeseburgers in the Worker’s Paradise by Rodger Baker

Handling A Nuclear North Korea, a five part series examining the measures that could be taken to inhibit North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Stratfor’s 2018 Annual Forecast: Asia-Pacific Region

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Fred Burton [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Chief Security Officer Fred Burton, and this Podcast is brought to you by Stratfor, the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform. To learn more about Stratfor Worldview, Threat Lens, or Stratfor's custom advisory services, visit us at Stratfor.com.

Rodger Baker [00:00:29] There's an unpredictability in Kim and in Trump that combined means that you could either come out of here with this really weird deal that's peace in our time, or you could come out with the United States saying, see, we tried diplomatic talks. They absolutely don't work. Now it's time to bomb them.

Ben Sheen [00:00:55] Welcome to the Stratfor Podcast, focused on geopolitics and world affairs from Stratfor.com. I'm your host Ben Sheen. After a year of soaring tensions and heated rhetoric, two key summits with North Korea are now on the horizon. Leaders from North and South Korea will meet on April 27th. And while the details are slim, the United States and North Korea are looking at the potential for a direct sit down between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to follow soon thereafter. For more insights into what we should or shouldn't expect from either meeting, and what makes this round of talks different, Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton sits down with Vice President of Strategic Analysis Rodger Baker for this episode of the Stratfor Podcast.

Fred Burton [00:01:40] Hi, I'm Fred Burton, joined to today with my good friend and colleague Rodger Baker. Rodger, we have two key summits coming up with Korea. The first being the Inter-Korean summit, and the second, the US-North Korea summit. Which is the more important?

Rodger Baker [00:01:58] Well I think ultimately, the question is if there is a US and North Korean summit, that certainly would be the more important. The South Korean, North Korean summit is really the third time we've seen one of these. It's not that it doesn't matter, and it's not that it isn't what will lay the groundwork for a lot of what's happening on the Korean peninsula, and the more tactical potentials for cooperation, easing tension there, but the idea of a summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States is a fairly amazing thing. Particularly since there is no diplomatic relations between the two countries, and the two countries are technically only in an armistice. They're still sort of at a state of war with each other since the 1950s.

Fred Burton [00:02:40] Where do you think the US-North Korea summit would be held?

Rodger Baker [00:02:44] Well this gets into the really confusing and difficult aspect. The North Koreans have hinted that they would love to have it in Pyongyang.

Fred Burton [00:02:52] I bet they would.

Rodger Baker [00:02:53] I'm sure they would. That would show to the world that even the United States president is willing to come to North Korea. It puts North Korea as clearly an equal with the other big powers. The South Koreans and the North Koreans look like they're going to be having their summit in Kaesong, or in Panmunjom, in the border city. That gives you an ability to have it where it's sort of in this neutral ground that's controlled by sort of that United Nations oversight, as well as the North Koreans. It's possible for example, that the US and the North Korean leader also meet there. That this South Korean summit would be a test of that as a viable space. There's been some talk about potentially meeting in northern Europe in some neutral country. The question comes down to, what is the politics you want to get out of where the location is? A secondary question would be, what would be the security? For example, what would be necessary for a US President to fly into Pyongyang and feel safe and confident in doing that?

Fred Burton [00:03:53] Well, we certainly had Jimmy Carter who was a Secret Service protectee, granted a former president, traveled to North Korea in the past. Behind the scenes, as we were chatting in the office yesterday, these kinds of logistics can be worked out. Surprisingly, the security services of nations that are usually at war, or even engaged in some challenging diplomatic requirements, at times, it's amazing to me as to how behind the scenes, the agents standing post, the protection that goes about affording these kinds of venues to take place, do occur somewhat seamlessly. Is it beyond the realm of possibilities that President Trump could travel to North Korea? I certainly would not rule that out. The Secret Service is certainly very capable of protecting him wherever he might go, and no nation state wants to be responsible for any kind of problems affecting these kinds of visits, especially something surrounding this kind of historic event. I think that's going to be very fascinating to watch play out as to where this summit might occur. But Rodger, how do you assure that there's something that comes out of this that's nothing more than a photo op?

Rodger Baker [00:05:17] I don't think you can assure anything in this. There's a long history of distrust between the United States and North Korea. There's a long history of broken promises by each side of agreements and deals that have fallen apart. Both sides are going into this eyes wide open that there is no guarantee coming out of it. By having the two leaders sit down, instead of going through the typical second or third tier channels and the complexities of North Korean negotiating strategy, and US bureaucracy, and the politics behind dialogue, and things of that sort. There is an unexpected space for something different this time around. Again, it's—

Fred Burton [00:05:56] In what way? What do you mean?

Rodger Baker [00:05:58] In what way? Well normally, you would have the North Koreans for example, come in, and they would almost have their watches set to have moments to get up and walk out of talks. Anything that would potentially be an agreement, they would simply say, well we can't answer that. They would leave for two days and go back to Pyongyang and figure it out. The Americans would be very concerned about how would this play politically in the United States? What's the cost of the politician who makes a particular action or agreement, or not agreement, particularly with the track record of these agreements? When you put the two of them together, you can ease some of that away. Trump is in some ways a bit of a unique president. He continues to act in ways that seem to be outside the norm of what a normal politician would work within. In other words, he seems to be willing to accept actions that most US politicians, particularly presidents, wouldn't do because of the political imagery. He has a different set of political imagery that he seems to be shaped by, and doesn't worry about these. There is some space for the two of them to come in. Make some sort of radical, drastic deal, and Trump wants to show what a quote, good deal would be, in contrary to the JCPOA with a round.

Ben Sheen [00:07:08] We'll return to our conversation with Stratfor's Fred Burton and Rodger Baker in just one moment. But if you would like to dig deeper into these issues, you'll find no greater resource than our extensive analysis and geopolitical forecasting at Stratfor Worldview. Rodger Baker goes into great detail about how circumstances have changed on the Korean peninsula ahead of these summits in his commentary, cheekily titled, Cheeseburgers in the Workers' Paradise. We've also published extensive research and analysis in a series called Handling a Nuclear North Korea. That's where our analysts war game a scenario for any potential US strike on North Korea and examine the cost that would be paid by US allies and others in the region. We'll include links to both of those in the show notes. If you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team and enterprise level access at Worldview.Stratfor.com/subscribe. Now back to our conversation on North Korea, and two upcoming summits with Stratfor's Fred Burton and Rodger Baker.

Fred Burton [00:08:06] Who's got the most to gain here, Rodger, by this summit? The US or North Korea?

Rodger Baker [00:08:10] South Korea. In some sense we've been sitting here and looking. Six months ago, we were sitting here talking about the likely potential for conflict on the Korean peninsula. And well certainly, the North Koreans would lose that, and the... South Korea would be devastated, and South Korea is a modern economy, it's a modern nation, high standard of living. One of the top 15 economies in the world, and they would be devastated in this war. Infrastructure damage, economic damage. It would throw the country back decades. Even a sense of easing the likelihood of imminent war is a huge victory for South Koreans. Even if nothing good comes out of these talks in the long-term, it has broken that perception of destruction coming. But the North Koreans would gain a lot. If the North Koreans can get diplomatic recognition from the United States, it may finally break them out of their diplomatic and economic isolation. If the United States can get a relatively decent deal out of the North Koreans that eases the sense of the North Korean nuclear program and the North Korean threat, that allows the United States to shift its attention to the rising challenges of places like China and Russia.

Fred Burton [00:09:23] Politically, how does this play in the United States for Donald Trump?

Rodger Baker [00:09:27] Again, it's real hard to measure because it's hard to measure who he really tries to look for politically. On the one hand, there was a lot of criticism of the president prior to this point because he wasn't apparently willing to engage with North Korea. Everyone said, you at least need some form of dialogue. You shouldn't just keep talking about war. Now many of the same individuals and same sources are now saying the president is not very smart for falling for the North Korean tricks, and dialogue is not going to accomplish anything. I don't think there's a way to win in the US, unless there's some sort of amazing breakthrough. But even if there's not, at least there's this bold attempt at trying dialogue. As I look at this, something that keeps coming into my head too, again, if this summit happens, and maybe you can answer this, let's assume that Trump goes to Pyongyang, right?

Fred Burton [00:10:17] Okay.

Rodger Baker [00:10:18] What happens to the nuclear football that everyone's been talking about?

Fred Burton [00:10:21] That will certainly be a topic of conversation at the National Security Council, but I think that they would leave that football in the good hands of Vice President Pence during that window of time, in all probability. Just in case there's some sort of problem with the president being in North Korea. One of the more interesting aspects as I think about this too, is China on the sidelines here watching this, and what kind of reaction do you think they have as a result of a potential North Korea-US summit?

Rodger Baker [00:11:02] Interesting thing here is that this time around, and this is why we have to think about this dialogue with the US differently. This time around, the North Koreans have positioned it in a way where they have brought the United States to the table. The Chinese did not facilitate that, right? The last time that happened was 1994 when Carter went to North Korea.

Fred Burton [00:11:22] Yeah, I remember that well. Bit of a kerfuffle at the State Department when that happened.

Rodger Baker [00:11:29] That's really the last time. Since then, for the most part, China has been the facilitator of dialogue, and therefore the one who can shape the direction and path of the outcome. The North Koreans have really cut the Chinese off politically for the past several years. They've arranged this through the South Koreans, giving the South Koreans a little leg up, and being the one who can go and claim that they delivered the message to the United States, got the positive response, but they're the ones doing it. Now the Chinese are trying to find a way to come back in and make sure that they understand what's going on, that they have a role in this. That's where Kim's visit to Beijing was very different than it would've been if he was asking the Chinese for help. Instead, he came to tell the Chinese what's going on. Now realistically, he's also asking to make sure that the Chinese keep backing him. There's likely to be a summit sometime maybe after the US and South Korean summit with the Russian president and the North Korean leader. He needs those other support spaces, but he's really repositioned China's role here. The Chinese aren't as worried because there's so many things that can go wrong here. For them, at least it's not like the US is preparing to attack. But they do have a little bit of concern on just how far this could go. There's an unpredictability in Kim and in Trump, that combined means that you could either come out of here with this really weird deal that's peace in our time, and North Korea acting like China did back in the '70s,

Rodger Baker [00:12:58] and becoming the new ally of the US to counter the Chinese. Or you could come out with the United States saying, see, we tried diplomatic talks. They absolutely don't work. Now it's time to bomb them.

Fred Burton [00:13:08] Yeah, that's very interesting. I know from the various events that I've been associated with, whether it be the Middle East peace conferences, the Bosnian-Serb conferences that we held, and so forth, there's a tremendous amount of work that goes on in the edges, in the margins, of all these events. Meaning, your sidebar discussions between your diplomats. As we were chatting in our office yesterday Rodger, there's not much of a window into how the lower level North Korean diplomats operate. Do you see anything coming out of that? Meaning, what could come out on the margins of this kind of event? Meaning, are there other kind of things that could fall out, such as better cooperation on, I don't know, terrorism travel, or something along those lines? What do you see potentially also coming out of this?

Rodger Baker [00:13:59] At minimum, you'd get new paths of dialogue. Traditionally, the lower level North Korean diplomats really had almost no authority of their own, and that made it very complicated when people would deal with them in track two, track 1.5, even track one dialogue. It wasn't really having direct dialogue with the North Koreans. Most of that was having dialogue that was being controlled back from Pyongyang. It may be that the North Koreans in this, if they're looking at facilitating, even if it's just President Trump going to Panmunjom, and the North Korean leader being there, there's going to have to be real working level dialogue and cooperation between the North Korean security services and the US Secret Service.

Fred Burton [00:14:42] Absolutely.

Rodger Baker [00:14:44] That in and of itself gives some interesting insights into North Korea, into how it works. And then secondarily, I would expect that the North Koreans, if they have any sense of seriousness about this, are not going to be doing this through their third tier diplomats. They're going to identify new people who have a greater amount of authority to have regularized dialogue with the United States.

Fred Burton [00:15:08] Yeah, and you raise a good point with that comment about the dialogue and the logistics of pulling one of these things off in general takes a tremendous amount of coordination. Not only with Secret Service advanced teams, but US Embassy involvement with North Korean diplomats, and would this be handled out of Washington DC, or would this be pushed out to Seoul, for example, for the logistics? Those are the kinds of things of behind the scenes would obviously be fascinating. Just the sheer size of the three-ring circus that travels with the president anywhere in the world, from you mentioned the nuclear football, to just the White House staff. I guarantee you, I know there'd be a lot of people that just would want to be a part of this because history could be taking place here, or will be, and Lord knows what could come out of it. From that standpoint, it's going to be the kind of event that everybody's going to want to be involved in. That does also pose unique challenges. To me, the interesting part, would that be could you see for example, the US Secretary of Defense meeting with the North Korean Minister of Defense in a sidebar meeting? Those kinds of things would be just really fascinating to watch unfold.

Rodger Baker [00:16:30] Yeah, and as we look at this, the reality is that the history, and the constraints, and the likely failure points. The outcome is almost guaranteed to be poor.

Fred Burton [00:16:44] Right.

Rodger Baker [00:16:45] But there's that small percent that we could be at a different moment in time with different players, with different pressures on them, with different capabilities, that we could actually finally have a breakthrough. As you note, just that small chance is going to make this a really interesting and potentially extremely important meeting to be watching.

Fred Burton [00:17:07] Thanks so much, Rodger.

Rodger Baker [00:17:08] Thank you, Fred.

Ben Sheen [00:17:11] And that's all for this episode of the Stratfor Podcast. Remember to check out the show notes for links to related articles online at Stratfor Worldview. Be sure to stay tuned for upcoming analysis, as we approach these key moments related to North Korea. We'll also include a link to Stratfor's 2018 annual forecast. While others were looking at an imminent war back in December, we forecast this for the year. Though the threat of war on the Korean peninsula can't be ruled out, United States will probably try to avoid a costly preventative strike against the North's nuclear weapons program that would plunge the global economy back into recession. Definitely worth reading if you want to understand the geopolitical constraints that nations and decision makers face. If you're not already a Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team and enterprise access at Stratfor.com. Worldview members can also contribute to this conversation, and engage with Stratfor's analysts, editors and contributors in our members-only forum. And for more geopolitical intelligence, analysis and forecasting that reveal the underlying significance and future implications of emerging world events, follow us on Twitter, @Stratfor.

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