U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday (local time) that the United States had already had “direct talks” with North Korea at “extremely high levels.” U.S. media reported that Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on his secret visit to the North as Trump’s special envoy early this month.
Pompeo’s secret visit indicates that preparations for a North Korea-U.S. summit are making rapid progress. The meeting between Pompeo, who has Trump’s absolute confidence, and Kim can be seen as a preliminary negotiation between the planned Kim-Trump summit. Trump also suggested that close talks are under way to hold the summit in “early June or before that” at one of “five different locations” outside of the United States.
In particular, Trump’s remark that the two Koreas have his “blessing” to discuss a peace regime that would replace the armistice agreement that halted the 1950-1953 Korean War. So far, the Trump administration had stressed only North Korea’s denuclearization. It was the first time that Washington publicly offered anything in return. Trump’s remarks suggest that he is envisioning a roadmap for achieving denuclearization and a peace regime at the same time while seeking to giving incentives, including a guarantee of Pyongyang’s regime, to the North in return.
There are many hurdles to overcome before signing a peace agreement, which would officially end the armistice on the peninsula that remains technically at war under international law and turn it into a peace regime by ending hostility. From whether an end-of-war declaration is necessary as a starting point for a peace process and how many countries will be involved in the proposed peace treaty to the issues of how to deal with post-war issues, what to do with the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and how to define the border between the two Koreas, each issue is potentially highly explosive, as it involves each related party’s calculation of its interest.
Nevertheless, if the North completely scraps its nuclear program, the remaining issues are not entirely insurmountable. It is possible that Pyongyang’s complete, verifiable, irreversible nuclear dismantlement will bring about a historic shift that would result in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the North and the United States and change the Cold War order in Northeast Asia. However, it is just a beginning. Trump is cautious. He said it is possible that a summit with Kim will not happen, adding that what is ultimately important is the “final results.”