A most unlikely meeting of rivals

Donald Trump took everyone by surprise by agreeing to talks with North Korea. Emily Hohler reports.

The “mentally deranged dotard” Donald Trump may have accepted an invitation to meet “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un (as the pair have nicknamed each other in ill-tempered exchanges via the media), but there are already doubts as to whether the meeting will actually take place, says Toby Harnden in The Times.

Since Trump shocked his staff and allies across the world by abruptly agreeing to a meeting last Thursday, the hermit kingdom has remained “steadfastly silent”, awakening concerns that Pyongyang may have been “insincere” or could “be playing psychological games”, says Bryan Harris in the Financial Times. And if it does take place, it could be a major coup for Kim, providing the regime with a semblance of global legitimacy.

The meeting was announced by Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, who paid an unprecedented visit to North Korea’s equivalent of the White House on 5 March, says Nathan Park in The Atlantic.

There, Kim Jong-un reportedly made a “stunning array of concessions”, including agreeing “in principle” to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and promising not to use nuclear or conventional weaponry against South Korea. Most significantly, he agreed to start talks with the US on denuclearisation, during which tests would be suspended.

Caught off guard

As usual, Trump’s decision “seems to have caught his entire government off guard”, says Paul Waldman in The Washington Post. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (ousted from his post on Tuesday and replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo) was reportedly “blindsided”, having said only a few hours earlier that negotiations were a “long way” off. The chief envoy to North Korea has just retired, and the US doesn’t even have an ambassador to South Korea. Leaving all that aside, putting our “mercurial” and “ill-informed” president across the table from Kim is a worrying prospect, says The New York Times.

Kim’s strategy

Well “nothing else seems to be working”, says Waldman, although it does seem highly unlikely that Kim will give up his nuclear weapons. The experiences of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, who were deposed and executed, have taught Kim that they “guarantee his power and even his life”. Nevertheless, Kim is in a tight spot, says Roland Watson in the South China Morning Post. Kim may threaten America with “threats of annihilation” but he doesn’t want to fight: that would spell his own annihilation too.

Meanwhile, the threat of starvation looms and a domestic uprising cannot be ruled out. His goal is for North Korea to become an “accepted dictatorship like China”. Before Trump “he was stuck”, but Trump “likes political dictatorships”. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump welcomes Kim” and is satisfied with a “meaningless promise” on denuclearisation. North Korea will start transitioning towards China’s dictatorship model. And then the US “will not be safe”.

The situation may not be so bad, says David Von Drehle in The Washington Post. Vladimir Putin is “champing at the bit” to build a gas pipeline through North Korea to supply “energy-hungry” South Korea. If talks with the US remove some of the most severe sanctions, the pipeline project is likely to be resurrected. With this “major strategic Russian asset running right through his country”, Kim would have “enough insurance against a US attack” to “mothball his own nukes” and “shelter under the Russian umbrella”. Further provocation gains Kim nothing. But now that he has his “nukes”, he is in a position, potentially, to “turn the page”.