Kim-Trump summit: is the world expecting too much from it?

Developments to date on the Korean Peninsula have been swift and positive, but the real test of peace and security in Northeast Asia hinges on what each side is willing to cede ground on when the two leaders meet.

With the date and location of the first ever summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea about to be announced, the two sides are jostling to make their positions on key issues clear  and both governments are suggesting that they could walk away from the best opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula for more than 60 years.

An official of the North Korean foreign ministry on Sunday demanded that Washington drop its threats to use military force and economic pressure to force Pyongyang to the negotiating table, saying ultimatums will not force the North to give up its nuclear weapons or halt its missile programs.

Quoted by the Korean Central News Agency, the unnamed official said, "It would not be conducive to addressing the issue if the US miscalculates the peace-loving intention of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a sign of 'weakness' and continues to pursue its pressure and military threats."

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Swipe at Washington

The swipe at Washington was the first for several weeks and came nine days after Kim Jong Un had a successful first meeting with Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, at Panmunjom. It also shows that North Korea will have its own demands of the international community when Kim finally meets President Donald Trump.

"Recently, the US is misleading public opinion, arguing as if the DPRK's clarification of its intention for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula made through the Panmunjom Declaration adopted at the historic North-South summit is the result of so-called sanctions and pressure," the official said.

The North also criticized the deployment of US Air Force F-22 fighter jets to South Korea as a "deliberate provocation" at a time when peace is within reach, as well as Washington's inclusion of human rights issues in future discussions.

Trump, for his part, has stated that he is ready to simply walk away from the discussions if he senses that the North is not being sincere, while a number of senior politicians, diplomats and military officials have declared that they have little faith that Kim will actually follow through on his promise to scrap his nuclear arsenal and his long-range ballistic missiles.

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North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

January 2, 2017: Missile test imminent

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s address that his country was in the "final stages" of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). US President-elect Donald Trump, whose inauguration was set for January 20, said on Twitter: "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won't happen!"

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

July 4, 2017: North Korea's 'gift packages'

North Korea tested its first ICBM — the Hwasong-14 — on US Independence Day. Kim reportedly told his scientists that "the US would be displeased" by the launch. This, he said, was because "it was given a 'package of gifts' ... on its 'Independence Day.'" Trump wrote on Twitter in response: "North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?"

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

July 28, 2017: US mainland threatened

Pyongyang tested its second Hwasong-14 weeks later. Experts estimated the new rocket could reach the US mainland. Trump lashed out at North Korean ally China, writing in a Tweet: "I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

August 8, 2017: 'Fire and fury'

Trump appeared to threaten swift military action against Pyongyang when he told reporters: "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." North Korea responded by threatening to fire a medium-range ballistic missile into the waters around Guam, a US territory in the Pacific Ocean. It did not follow through.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

August 29, 2017: Japan rocket test

Pyongyang sparked international outcry when it test-launched a mid-range ballistic missile — the Hwasong-12 — over Japan. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the test. Trump said in a White House statement: "Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

September 3, 2017: Hydrogen bomb test

North Korea announced it had successfully tested its sixth nuclear weapon. Pyongyang said it was a powerful type of nuclear weapon called a hydrogen bomb and that it could be placed on top of a ballistic missile. Trump wrote on Twitter: "The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

September 19, 2017: Threat to 'Rocket Man'

In his first speech at the United Nations, Trump called North Korea a "rogue state" and said Washington "will have no choice than to totally destroy North Korea" if Pyongyang failed to stop its nuclear weapons program. Referring to Kim, he added: "Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime." Kim called Trump a "mentally-deranged US dotard" two days later.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

November 29, 2017: Third ICBM test

North Korea test-fired its third ICBM of 2017. Pyongyang claimed it was a new missile, the Hwasong-15, which was superior to the Hwasong-14 and could hit any target on the US mainland. The US urged allies, including Germany, to break diplomatic ties with North Korea. Berlin ignored the call. Trump also called Kim a "sick puppy."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

January 3, 2018: Who's got the bigger button?

Kim said in his 2018 New Year's address that the North had completed its nuclear weapons program and that a "nuclear button" was on his desk at all times. Trump wrote two days later on Twitter: "Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

February 10, 2018: Tensions thawing?

South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, at the presidential house in the South Korean capital. She handed a letter to Moon inviting him to meet the North Korean leader in Pyongyang. Tensions appeared to be thawing. Seoul and Pyongyang had already agreed to send a unified hockey team to compete at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

March 6, 2018: Momentum builds

South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong led a delegation on March 5 to Pyongyang to discuss the potential for peace talks. The next day, Chung said both sides had agreed to hold a joint summit in April and set up a telephone hotline between the two capitals. He also said Pyongyang would agree to stop its nuclear weapons and missile tests if the US agreed to hold talks with the North.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

March 9, 2018: Trump agrees

Chung flew on to Washington, D.C. to speak with Trump. After the meeting, Chung told reporters the US president had agreed to meet Kim by May. Trump later wrote on Twitter: "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!" Foreign leaders welcomed the historic breakthrough.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

April 19, 2018: 'Denuclearization'

A week before the scheduled meeting at the border between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Moon said North Korea wanted "an end to the hostile relations" and had expressed a commitment to "complete denuclearization" of the peninsula. The next day, the telephone hotline was connected for the first time since February 2016, so Moon and Kim could talk directly.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

April 21, 2018: Kim ends missile tests

Kim announced North Korea would stop nuclear and missile tests. Kim said: "We no longer need any nuclear test or test launches of intermediate and intercontinental range ballistic missiles, and because of this the northern nuclear test site has finished its mission." However, no mention was made of its stored nuclear materials and equipment.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

April 27, 2018: Historic summit

Kim and Moon Jae-in meet in the border town of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that has divided the two Koreas since the Korean War in 1953. The two leaders vowed to work towards a nuclear-free Korea and pledged an end to war. It was the first time a North Korean leader had set foot across the border since the 1950s and paves the diplomatic way for a Trump-Kim meeting in May or June.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

April 30, 2018: Seoul turns off broadcasts

South Korea announces its propaganda loudspeakers are to be switched off for good. They had been silenced temporarily ahead of the inter-Korean summit, which prompted the North to halt its broadcasts, too. Pyongyang also said it would adjust its time zone to that of the South as a symbolic gesture. North Korea has been half an hour behind the South since 2015.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

May 24, 2018: Trump calls off Kim summit

After North Korea slammed US Vice President Mike Pence for comparing North Korea and Libya, Donald Trump abruptly canceled the summit. Trump said the move was due to "tremendous anger and open hostility" displayed by Pyongyang.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

June 1, 2018: Trump backtracks

A day after scrapping the summit, Trump suggested he was still open to meeting Kim. US and North Korean officials met during the following week and on June 1, Trump met one of Kim's closest aides, Kim Yong Chol, in the White House. Shortly thereafter, Trump said the summit would indeed take place on June 12 in Singapore. "I think you're going to have a very positive result in the end," he said.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

June 12, 2018: Smiles in Singapore

Trump and Kim met in Singapore as planned. They smiled, shook hands and praised how far they had come in overcoming their previous animosity. The summit ended with both leaders signing a short joint declaration that committed Pyongyang to denuclearize and the US to providing unspecified "security guarantees" to the North. Trump also said he would invite Kim to the White House.

'Pre-summit theatrics'

"This looks very much like pre-summit theatrics to me," said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.

"Both sides want to be in the strongest position and each has its own priorities, with the North focused on ensuring regime survival as its basic stance," he told DW. "And we have to remember they have been doing this for years, so they are very good at it. Once again, they are likely to ask for the stars but still do pretty well by getting the clouds."

"But Trump is doing the exact thing by threatening to walk away and go back to maximum pressure if he does not get what he wants," Nagy added.

Nagy believes that Kim has played a relatively weak hand extremely well, holding talks in Beijing with Xi Jinping ahead of his meeting with Moon and a summit with Trump expected before the end of June. The North's charm offensive has already paid dividends, with recognition for the regime and the South and China inching towards relaxing some of the sanctions that have so crippled the regime.

But Nagy believes that Kim will try to wring even more from the international community in return for abandoning his nuclear program.

"I think he will ask for the joint US-South Korean military training to be cancelled, with the US probably consenting to move it elsewhere on the peninsula that is further away from the Demilitarized Zone, and he will want developmental aid to help build the North's economy," he suggested.

"Kim will also probably call for international sanctions to be lifted, a peace agreement to be signed to supersede the Korean War armistice and a non-aggression pact, probably co-signed with China to serve as a guarantor of the North," Nagy said.

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Hardening of attitudes

Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, believes the North's criticisms of the US may indicate a hardening of attitudes in Pyongyang and a hint that Kim is going to drive a hard bargain when he meets Trump.

"This is consistent with the North's worldview and ideology for many decades, so perhaps we should not be surprised that they have gone back to this sort of rhetoric," he said.

And while it is "virtually impossible" to predict the outcome of the Kim-Trump summit and whether the two leaders will even get on when they finally meet, Pinkston is not optimistic that present developments on the peninsula are going to lead to a sea-change in the short term.

"I'm skeptical that things will go as well as some people are predicting, although we do have to ask what the criteria for success is for each side," he said. "My feeling is that we have to be realistic and not set the bar too high because a clear failure could lead to a total collapse of all that has been achieved to date and a return to the posturing, attempted coercion and the heightened risk of conflict that we were in not many months ago."

North Korea's history of taking US prisoners

'Crimes against the state'

In 2016, US student Otto Warmbier was arrested for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster as a "trophy." He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for "crimes against the state." In June 2017, he was returned by North Korea to the US in a coma and died a week later. What happened to him in captivity is a mystery. His death prompted a ban on US citizens traveling to North Korea.

North Korea's history of taking US prisoners

'Subversion and espionage'

Kim Dong Chul, a South Korea-born US citizen, was sentenced in 2015 to 10 years hard labor for "subversion and espionage" after North Korean officials said he received a USB stick containing nuclear-linked and military secrets from a South Korean source in North Korea. Chul was arrested while visiting the special economic zone of Rason. He remains imprisoned and his condition is unknown.

North Korea's history of taking US prisoners

'Trying to overthrow the regime'

In 2013, North Korea sentenced US citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years hard labor for "crimes against the state." He was arrested while on a tour group in the port city of Rason. A North Korean court described Bae as a militant Christian evangelist. He was allowed to talk to the media once, and said he was forced to work eight hours a day and was in poor health. Bae was released in November 2014.

North Korea's history of taking US prisoners

'Rash behavior' and 'hostile acts'

In 2013, US citizen Matthew Miller was arrested when he arrived in Pyongyang and reportedly tore up his US passport, demanding asylum in North Korea. He was later sentenced to six years of hard labor on charges of espionage. The court said Miller had a "wild ambition" to experience prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea's human rights situation. He was released in 2014.

North Korea's history of taking US prisoners

'Criminal involved in killing civilians'

In 2013, Merrill Newman an 85-year-old Korean War US Army veteran, was detained for one month in North Korea. Arrested as he was departing, he was accused of "masterminding espionage and subversive activities." He was freed after he expressed "sincere repentance" and read a statement that said he was "guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against the DPRK government and Korean people."

North Korea's history of taking US prisoners

Freed by a diplomatic gesture

US journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were captured in 2009 after briefly entering North Korea to report on refugees. After a month in confinement, they were sentenced to 12 years hard labor for "illegal entry and "hostile acts." Two months later, after former US President Bill Clinton met with former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, the two women were pardoned and freed.