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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Donald Trump's summit with Kim Jong-un could be a game-changing encounter  

Analysis: Donald Trump has responded to the Kim dynasty's decades-long push for a meeting with a serving US president

Kim Jong-il met US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang in 2000. David Guttenfelder / AP Photo
Kim Jong-il met US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang in 2000. David Guttenfelder / AP Photo

In the Netflix drama The Crown, Queen Elizabeth is depicted conducting a moment of Cold War diplomacy by taking to the dance floor with the leader of newly independent Ghana.

President Donald Trump will almost certainly not be dancing when he meets Kim Jong-un in May but the encounter is likely to be as dramatic as any a scriptwriter could concoct.

For the diplomats schooled in the hard grind of diplomacy with North Korea there is an ill-disguised wail of despair that Mr Trump would rip up the playbook – which insists that North Korea at least verifiably freeze all nuclear activity, if not start de-arming – before it is rewarded with a top level meeting.

To the professionals, a summit is the “coin of the realm” for the US president in this high-stakes stand-off. It should only be handed over after concessions.

As is clear in many ways, not least in his failure to staff senior state department posts and key jobs like the US ambassador to Seoul, President Trump does not give much creed to the standard practices. From his point of view, North Korea has essentially played the diplomatic game while attaining its nuclear capability in fits and starts.

The president, as author of the book Art of the Deal, trusts his instincts to bargain face-to-face. There is no doubt that there is a massive ego incentive on both sides of this sudden push for a meeting.

Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, is the most senior serving official to have visited Pyongyang but her trip in 2000 proved to be a false dawn. Initial reports that Mr Trump could travel to the city may yet prove wide of the mark. The Cold War diplomatic breakthroughs tended to take place in third venues like Reykjavik. Mr Kim’s aversion to flying, however, limits the options.

Former US President Bill Clinton meets Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang in 2009. Korea News Service via AP
Former US President Bill Clinton meets Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang in 2009. Korea News Service via AP

Former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang after leaving office. Mr Clinton’s charm was on display when he pointed to a seascape mural and told Kim Jong-un, the current leader's father, that he would like to relax on a North Korean beach one day.

According to a subsequently leaked memo, the talks in 2009 were taken up with Mr Kim's clamourous push for bilateral talks with President Barack Obama. Mr Clinton sought to sustain the diplomatic process known as the six-party talks, claiming it would lead to a direct meeting with the US president as progress was made.

The first Carter visit in 1994 gave key insights into the Kim family’s decades long drive to meet the US president as equals. Mr Carter brought along a CNN camera crew for a first glimpse inside the Communist hermit kingdom. They were told to only film Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the dynasty, from one side. The other side of his neck was filled with a massive goitre.

The same network later reported a telling moment in Mr Carter’s preparations for the visit, when he told the diplomats they were too narrowly focused on the technical aspects of handling North Korea.

"None of you have told me what I need to know," Mr Carter said to a State Department briefing team. "You haven't told me what Kim Il Sung wants. What he wants is my respect. And I am going to give it to him."

Contemporary experts find it hard to believe that Mr Trump would master an agenda of “concessions and counter-concessions, building trust and credibility”. Rather they fear his tendency to go “wildly off-script” could lead to a messy outcome from the meeting – thus making tensions even worse. Some even fear Mr Trump would make too many concessions to the 33-year old Mr Kim.

Yet conventional diplomacy and sanctions have not stopped Pyongyang’s pursuit of a nuclear capability. A visit by Mr Trump is the only potential game-changing development that could shift the Kim dynasty on to a different path.