The stakes are too high, on both diplomatic and personal levels, for the much-anticipated talks between the United States and North Korea to not take place.
After much gamesmanship by both U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, preparations are moving forward for the dialogue in Singapore on June 12. The historic moment has been fraught with drama and included Trump flaunting his “Art of the deal” negotiating prowess on an international stage. While the discussions have appeared uncertain at times, both head-strong leaders realize what the lost opportunity could cost them.
President Trump understands what this meeting will hold for him politically, for both his base and also at the international level as he positions himself as a hard-nosed yet rational negotiator. The same largely holds true for Kim Jong Un. Similar to his U.S. counterpart, the talks are an important moment for the North Korean leader, both domestically and internationally. The upcoming set of talks allows Kim Jong Un to debut himself in the world stage as a strong-willed but also somewhat reasonable leader. Domestically, Kim Jong Un is able to portray image of a leader who is able to sit down and talk directly with the United States, which is something that neither his father or grandfather could accomplish.
Further, the talks are being held against the backdrop of troubling developments for the infamously hermit kingdom, including a growing trend of defectors at the higher levels of society. Many are aware of the case of consul Tae Myung Ho, who defected from the North Korean embassy a few years back. This was seen as a major blow to the North Korean leadership and also hurt Kim Jong Un’s ego.
When the North Korean domestic elite are fleeing, it means that Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy domestically is not as secure as it seems. So, the talks for the portly dictator are an important moment for him to secure his standing in North Korea.
While the talks are a momentous occasion, it is important to have temper expectations for outcomes. I do not expect any major deals to result to transpire. Given that Trump has toned down his expectations to a “get to know you” kind of meeting, he seems share that reservation. If the United States is able to get a written commitment from North Korea that it would be willing to destroy some of its ICBMs, that would be a major win for the U.S. president. These intercontinental ballistic missiles, with their capability of reaching U.S. soil, are the major worry for America.
For North Korea, having the United States ease some of the sanctions imposed it would be a win from their perspective, as Kim Jong Un’s country is reportedly dealing with serious scarcities of food and other basic items.
Although not ground-breaking developments, these are reasonable goals. However, expecting North Korea to agree to a complete denuclearization is not a viable outcome. Once Kim Jong Un loses his ability to cause fear in the international community, he also loses his global voice.
If the talks result in toned-down rhetoric between the two bombastic leaders, it would calm East Asia and global communities and may be the most lasting outcome. From that perspective, the stakes are too high for the U.S. and North Korean leaders to not follow through.
Nusta Carranza Ko is an assistant professor of political science at Ohio Northern University. She grew up in South Korea and has continued to focus much of her research on East Asia, including South Korean politics and human rights violations.