When US President Donald Trump (pictured left) recently accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s (pictured right ) request to hold talks by May, many wondered whether he fell into a trap set by Kim.
They had a reason to believe so since developments on the Korean front were unfolding over the past two months like in a play.
But the brisk moves North Korea has been making over the past weeks indicate that they are serious about the talks with the US. On Sunday (March 18), a senior North Korean diplomat Choe Kang-il headed to Finland to hold talks with former US diplomats and security experts from Seoul. The parties are expected to discuss denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, an inter-Korean summit scheduled next month and a possible US-North Korea summit in May.
Earlier, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri-yong-ho held talks with Swedish officials, days after he met the country’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom in Stockholm. Denuclearisation and the Trump-Kim summit were discussed besides the release of three Korean-Americans held in the North for separate “hostile acts.
This meeting in Sweden was significant since it was the first western country to set up an embassy in North Korea in 1975. The embassy also represents US, Canadian and Australian diplomatic interests in North Korea.
Rumours say Sweden may be hosting the proposed US-North Korea talks although Stockholm has declined to comment on the possibility.
Whether the Kim-Trump talks take place in Stockholm, Geneva, Beijing or Panmunjom, the question is will North Korea remove its nuclear weapons and allow UN nuclear inspectors to conduct periodic checks of their facilities?
If Kim fails to answer this question, the proposed summit will be reduced to a mere show between two leaders to boost their image back home.
Trump appears to be aware of the risks involved in the meeting with Kim. North Korea had failed to keep promises in the past. So if Trump is eyeing a deal of the century, Kim should be willing to get rid of nuclear weapons, stop all missile and nuclear tests and allow periodic visits by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The proposed summit will make the world safer if Kim genuinely agrees to a broad-based, verifiable denuclearisation deal and sticks to it for huge economic gains the US is expected to offer.
If, instead, Kim views the summit as an opportunity to escape the sanctions choking his country, get US weapons systems removed from South Korea’s soil and break the US-South Korea axis, he will be greatly disappointed. US officials roughly know what is driving Kim to the negotiating table.
The world will be more unsafe if Kim-Trump talks collapse and an angry Kim is forced to return home empty-handed. The war of words between the two leaders on the size of their nuclear buttons may escalate leading to a real conflict.
Like the US, Japan too wants to know whether North Korea will keep the pledge especially on visits by nuclear inspectors. Tokyo does not want any more North Korean missiles landing perilously close to their shores.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has requested South Korean President Moon Jae-in to get an assurance from Kim on this when he meets him at the North-South summit next month.
Abe is also keen on a face-to-face meeting with Kim. He does not want Japan to be left behind in the significant diplomatic push happening in the Korean peninsula.
While North Korean officials are holding back-channel talks with US interlocutors in Stockholm and Helsinki, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned Trump against forces within trying to scuttle the summit by arguing that further pressure is needed on North Korea. Lavrov has a point since Washington will be sending wrong signals to Pyongyang if they suddenly withdraw from the talks.