Did the impossible just happen? President of the United States Donald Trump is set to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after months of escalating nuclear tension, belligerence, and back-and-forth threats and insults. The slated encounter has been described by one Western paper as perhaps the "most eagerly watched" diplomatic meeting since US President Richard Nixon met Communist leader Mao Zedong in China or Ronald Reagan met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Switzerland.
What might be a heartening sign towards de-escalation has not been received with enthusiasm by all. Reacting to the reports of the Trump-Kim meeting, a New York Times opinion piece has described it as "a dangerous gamble" and "a bad idea".
However, at least on the face of it, such a meeting could ease tensions in Asia and beyond. In fact, another Western paper, the United Kingdom's Telegraph, has described the announcement as "a major coup" for South Korea.
While the outcome of the meeting remains to be seen, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has welcomed the announcement of a summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un by the end of May.
The surprise announcement comes after it was reported earlier this week that Pyongyang was willing to hold talks with Washington on denuclearisation, according to South Korea.
How successful the planned meeting will be and what it will mean for the world depends on how the major players involved will approach each other ahead of and during the summit.
Wary before the announcement, how far will the Trump administration trust Kim?
The Donald Trump White House, at least before the announcement of the meeting was made, was reported to be wary of North Korea's overtures. Days before Trump reportedly accepted the invitation to meet Kim Jong-un, The Wall Street Journal had said that the White House was cautious about opening talks with North Korea even as the US President called Pyongyang's offer to discuss denuclearisation sincere.
Have the reasons behind that lack of trust been mitigated, considering Trump has now accepted the offer? We do not know. According to the WSJ, the Trump administration's wariness was based on "three decades of frustrated diplomacy and fears" that Kim Jong-un could link giving up his nuclear weapons with demands like the withdrawal of American forces from the Korean Peninsula which would be unacceptable.
A March 6 WSJ report had quoted one senior Trump administration official as saying that Washington was looking for "concrete steps toward denuclearisation" instead of "a list of or a rehashing of old positions" that had failed to lead to such an outcome.
On Thursday night, the news of the Trump-Kim meeting was confirmed by the White House and the South Korean National Security Advisor, Chung Eui-yong, who was in Washington on a visit. According to US media reports, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that Trump "greatly appreciated the nice words of the South Korean delegation and President Moon", adding that he was accepting "the invitation to meet with Kim Jong-un at a place and time to be determined...".
After meeting Trump at the White House, Chung said that Kim had "expressed his eagerness to meet" Trump "as soon as possible", adding that "President Trump said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May".
However, the fine print is what counts. If statements are to be unpacked, the Trump administration is sticking with Ronald Reagan's words: "Trust, but verify". The White House press secretary told the US media that while Washington looked forward to North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, sanctions and "maximum pressure" placed on Pyongyang "must remain" in the meantime.
Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2018
Will Pyongyang be on board with continuing sanctions even as it extends, what it might consider, an olive branch? The announcement comes after reports emerged that North Korea was ready to talk with the US on denuclearisation. This message from Pyongyang was delivered to the world by South Korea after a delegation returned from North Korea where it met Kim Jong-un. As part of its offer, North Korea also reportedly said it would suspend its nuclear weapons tests while those talks were being conducted.
Having welcomed the Trump-Kim talks, will Japan be more optimistic on talks?
Japan, according to reports, has been cautious about talks with North Korea. According to the Japan Times, a day before news of the Trump-Kim meeting broke, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had warned that talking for the sake of talking would be "meaningless". Further, Abe had cautioned that Pyongyang's offer of denuclearisation talks could be a ploy to earn "time to develop nuclear capabilities and missiles". He had stressed the need for North Korea to take "concrete" steps.
However, Abe on Friday welcomed the shock announcement of a meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un. News agencies reported that while informing his country that he planned to visit the US to meet President Trump "as early as April", Abe said that he "highly" appreciated Pyongyang's offer for starting "talks on the premise of denuclearisation".
Despite his earlier warnings, Abe reportedly sounded a positive note on the planned meeting and described it as an achievement of the "cooperation between Japan, the US, and South Korea to maintain great pressure".
Yet again, the fine print is important. Abe made it clear that Tokyo had no intention of easing up on Kim. "There is no change in policy for Japan and the United States," he said, adding: "We will keep putting maximum pressure (on North Korea) until North Korea takes concrete actions toward denuclearisation in a manner that is complete, verifiable and irreversible."
What of the insults?
We have anecdotal evidence that both US President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un have something of an ego. In that context, what becomes of the threats and insults that they have thrown at each other?
On a lighter note, as the fate of millions and the possibility of averting nuclear escalation and war hang in the balance, one hopes that gloves will be on when this planned summit goes through.