That Kim-Moon meeting left a lot to be desired

When I wrote about the meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in yesterday I suggest we should probably temper our expectations as to what might come of it. Now that we’ve heard from Moon and gotten his report of what took place, I’m not much more confident. Reuters has most of the details that South Korea released in a press conference and it contains a lot of flowery, hopeful talk, but remains perilously short on details.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his commitment to “complete” denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and to a planned meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday.

In Washington, Trump signaled that preparations for the summit with Kim were going ahead.

Moon and Kim agreed at a surprise meeting on Saturday that a possible North Korea-U.S. summit must be held successfully, Moon told a news conference in Seoul.

This has the possibility of being good news so we shouldn’t discount it completely. But at the same time, there are a number of problems with these reports which are worth looking at.

First of all, we still only have Moon’s version of events. We never get to hear about denuclearization from Kim himself. All the North Korean news outlets are saying is that Kim expressed “his fixed will” on the possibility of a June 12 meeting. That doesn’t mean that Moon is lying or that he’s wrong, but all we have is his interpretation of the conversation. Moon also spoke of his agreement with Kim that they need to continue “our quest for the Korean peninsula’s denuclearization.” Quest is an interesting choice of words, isn’t it? And when asked specifically what “denuclearization” means, he would not answer. All he would say was that, “Pyongyang and Washington may have differing expectations of what that means.”

Not to get too lowbrow about this, but… come on, man. Those are the words of somebody who knows that we’re talking about two markedly different visions of what a “denuclearized” Korean Peninsula looks like but who is desperate to make this meeting happen so he’s blurring the lines to get the two sides talking. That may be admirable in diplomatic circles, but it could also be setting us up for a huge disappointment when North Korea finally tells the United States to our faces that we can go pound sand if we want him to give up all his nukes in short order.

Kim also seems to be hedging his bets, even in Moon’s version of the meeting. The WaPo includes another detail from Moon’s report where South Korea’s leader says that Kim isn’t too sure he can even trust the United States.

Kim also expressed concern about whether he could trust the U.S. guarantee that he would remain in power following denuclearization, Moon said after his impromptu meeting with the North Korean leader Saturday afternoon, which was requested by Kim.

Perhaps I’m just too suspicious of Kim and his family after all these years of madness, but I can tell you what this sounds like to me. Kim is setting things up so that he comes into the meeting with President Trump (if it happens) claiming that he’s the only one who has been putting anything on the table so far. He’s opened a dialogue with South Korea, blown up his testing facility and released the hostages. America has given him nothing but a “wait and see” gesture. So he can ask for at least some of the riches and prosperity that Trump has mentioned before he gives up anything else.

That might leave the President needing to deliver on sanction relief, shipments of food, cash, opening trade routes and help with agricultural technology for the North. In exchange, I can see Kim offering to invite IAEA inspectors in next year after he gets all that and letting them watch him dismantle one nuke and take the pieces away. That would put him a few steps along on that “quest” for a denuclearized peninsula while still holding onto some serious firepower.

If Trump walks away from that offer (which he really should), then Kim winds up looking like the reasonable one and China probably backs him up as long as he makes nice with South Korea. We may still be totally outfoxed on this. As I said, I’ll remain hopeful for a workable deal, but I’m nowhere near convinced yet.