March 13, 2018 | By Karl Friedhoff

Deep Dish: What to Know about North Korea Talks

US President Donald Trump has accepted North Korea's invitation for direct talks with Kim Jong-un. North Korea expert Karl Friedhoff and national security expert Commander Thomas Bodine help set the stage for what could be historic talks between the two nations' leaders.



[Karl Friedhoff: The independent reentry vehicle has not been proven yet with an atmospheric test over the Pacific.

Stephen Anderson: Karl, a lot of people have said, "Doesn't that risk their survival?"

Tom Bodine: You can do all of that. In China's mind, it's all wins from that perspective.]

Stephen Anderson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Stephen Anderson filling in for Brian Hanson, and today we're discussing the possibility of direct talks between the leaders of the United States and North Korea. I'm joined by Karl Friedhoff, research fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and our in-house Korea expert. Welcome, Karl.

Karl Friedhoff: Thank you.

Stephen Anderson: Also joining us is Commander Thomas Bodine, Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, national security expert, and an active duty officer in the US Navy. I should note that Commander Bodine's opinions do not represent the views of the US Navy. Welcome, Tom.

Tom Bodine: Thanks for having me.

Stephen Anderson: President Donald Trump has accepted North Korea's invitation for direct talks with Kim Jong-un. I'm hoping the two of you can help us and our listeners to understand what this means and how to think about it. I'm going to go ahead and start with Karl. Karl, could you set the stage for us on this one? At the beginning of the year, Kim Jong-un and President Trump appeared to be trading insults. Now, just three months later, they're ready to sit down and start talking. How did we get here?

Karl Friedhoff: Well, they didn't appear to be trading insults; they certainly were trading insults with Kim Jong-un referring to President Trump as a "dotard." That's been oft repeated, and I'll note that that's probably one of the least bad things they've said about an American leader in quite some time. But of course, if we're not going to go back, obviously, into the mid-'90s when all of this kinds of kicks off, we'll just cover the most recent US presidency.

Essentially, when Kim Jong-un took over and President Trump came into office, those two things did not happen simultaneously, obviously. But once they were both in kind of leadership positions, we saw a very sped-up timeline for the North Korean missile program. We saw a lot more missile tests, both of their intermediate range ballistic missiles, and then suddenly they were firing workable ICBMs. Then there were nuclear tests, and this was all in an attempt, I think, to kind of rush forward to show that they had a workable nuclear program and that they would be able to deliver a missile to the US mainland.

Once they had that proved, I think they were going to sit back, and that's kind of what they started to do. When all of that happened, suddenly the Trump administration came in and decided it was going to pursue maximum pressure and engagement. And for all the faults of the Trump administration, the one thing it's been very successful on is its policy towards North Korea. If the goal was to isolate North Korea and pursue sanctions, they've done that very well. We've seen more of the international community come on board. We've seen countries beginning to expel North Korean diplomats around the world. And by anecdotal evidence, it looks like these sanctions are starting to have an effect on North Korea.

Now, is that the reason suddenly at their table? I don't believe so. I think they were always going to come to the Olympics simply because it's an international event, it's prestigious, and they want their athletes to be there. They did the same thing before the '88 Olympics. They tried to co-host those. Didn't work out exactly in the end. So that's kind of how we've got here. Now, with the Olympic breakthrough, they followed up. Suddenly, we have a proposal and here we are.

Stephen Anderson: Karl, I've got some follow-up questions for you, but I'm actually going to go to Tom on something here. Karl, you mentioned that North Korea now has the ability to hit the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. Tom, why does that matter to us? And how does that change the calculus for our partners, South Korea and Japan, as well as China?

Tom Bodine: Yeah. Nuclear war in the eyes of American military strategy is, I would say, is the next level. It is the pinnacle of armed conflict, so to have a nation such as North Korea, who is openly hostile to the United States and, quite honestly, its surrounding allies, have this capability, I think, is an existential threat. Not only to the nations in its neighborhood but now with the introduction of these intercontinental ballistic missiles, now is a threat to the United States.

So I think it just raises the overall tensions, both regionally but now globally as well. And I just want to mention that I think while they have intercontinental ballistic missiles and they have shown nuclear weapons, I don't know that they yet have the technology to put those two things together yet.

Karl Friedhoff: Yeah, that's right. The independent reentry vehicle has not been proven yet, so it feels kind of like when the United States says, "Well, they don't have the reentry vehicle," it somewhat feels like the US is daring them to show it, which they have offered to do on several occasions with an atmospheric test over the Pacific.

Stephen Anderson: Okay, so here we are. North Koreans appear to have the ability perhaps to hit the US mainland with nuclear missiles, and the president and Kim Jong-un have apparently agreed to sit down and talk. Is that a big deal, Karl?

Karl Friedhoff: It is a big deal because it would be the first time that a US president will be meeting with a leader of North Korea. North Korea has made this offer before, so the fact that they've made the offer is not unprecedented, but the fact that President Trump has accepted it and accepted it so quickly, I think is a big deal. And the fact that we had a South Korean national security advisor with no White House officials alongside of him in front of the White House announce that this was going to happen was also a very curious decision on the part of the White House.

Stephen Anderson: Related to that, Karl, we have a question from one of our Facebook followers, Jon. He said, "Why are we agreeing on talks based solely on what the South Koreans said and we weren't even there to hear it?"

Karl Friedhoff: That's right. This is something that came out even after this was initially brought out by the South Koreans. We're still waiting for the North Koreans to verify kind of this three- to five-point plan about what the South Koreans have announced. As we're moving forward, there has been some indication that there may have been backchannels there. When Ivanka Trump was in Pyeongchang for the Olympics, there was a little-known NSC official that was along on that trip but was not listed as a part of the official delegation. There were pictures of this official there, and this official has been a long-time person who's been involved with negotiations. So this official may have been there as a way to set up these backchannel talks between North Korea and United States, so this offer may not have been a full surprise to the Trump administration.

Stephen Anderson: Interesting. Is the meeting set? Is this official now?

Karl Friedhoff: It's not official. The US keeps talking about needing to see direct actions or direct steps towards denuclearization before it becomes official, but the president seems dead set on making this happen. Of course, we'll also have to talk about location, we'll have to talk about the agenda and who's going to actually attend outside of the president themselves. There's still a lot of work to be done.

Stephen Anderson: Karl, speaking of location, Aaron asked on our Facebook page, "Where should the talks take place?" Should they be in Washington, Pyongyang, or Korea, or someplace else?

Karl Friedhoff: I think anywhere in the United States is absolutely out of the question. Pyongyang seems to be the most logical of it. It's the optics of that aren't great, but luring Kim Jong-un anywhere outside of the Korean Peninsula is difficult because let's not forget there are rampant human rights abuses. The UN issued the Commission of Inquiry report that was very damning, citing a lot of human rights abuses within North Korea. So there has been a call that Kim Jong-un should perhaps be called in front of The Hague for those abuses. So I think there's some concern that he might not want to get out of the country. So we're probably looking at either Pyongyang or perhaps Panmunjom along the DMZ that separates North and South Korea.

Stephen Anderson: Tom, I've got a couple questions for you. What is at stake strategically for the United States?

Tom Bodine: A lot, is the easy answer. I mean, it's a test of the strategic vision that this administration has with maximum pressure. That's not to say that the failure of these talks to bring about any significant change is a failure of that strategy, but it definitely would be validation of that strategy if there was something concrete to come out of these talks, even if it was an agreement for more talks.

If you look at it from a diplomatic and informational standpoint, it's just that from a global stage. Can America continue to lead? Is the strategy its pursuing with respect to North Korea and its nuclear weapons the correct strategy, that max pressure, which involves the global community? From a military perspective, does America have the ability to lead militarily? Are we able to apply deterrence in such a manner that prevents conflict because, ultimately, that's what we'd want. And then, from an economic standpoint, markets love stability and hate insecurity, so I think anything that brings about more stability, both regionally and globally, would be good strategically for the United States.

Stephen Anderson: Karl, you said that just getting to this point indicates that the president's policies in North Korea have already been successful. Can you explain that a little bit?

Karl Friedhoff: Maybe I'll backtrack on that a little bit. I thought that when Kim Jong-un came and offered the Olympics, I thought that was North Korea had planned that all along. It's unclear to me whether or not the sanctions are what is driving North Korea to the table now. Instead, I think this is perhaps a tactical shift rather than a strategic shift. They're not going to come out and suddenly give up their weapons. I don't think they're going to give up their weapons for anything. That's just my personal opinion. And if they were to, it would have to be just an absolutely enormous package of economic benefits of aid and any number of other things.

So instead, I think they've got a reading on their "men". They've got a reading on Moon Jae-in, the South Korea president, that he wants to engage and has been pushing for that because he's the former chief of staff to Roh Moo-hyun, who was one of the progressive presidents previously. And they have a reading on Donald Trump.

This is kind of the Gordian Knot moment. The Gordian Knot, Alexander the Great, and he goes up into northern Turkey, and he comes across this knot that no one's been able to untie, and he takes out his sword and cuts it in half basically. So this is kind of what Donald Trump has done. For very long, we've had diplomats in other administrations looking around this problem, trying to pull on threads, and not really having any success. And suddenly, here the president is cutting through all of that and saying, "We're going to go talk, and we're going to see what we can do."

So is this North Korea really having a big re-think about its nuclear weapons program? I don't think so. I think it has the measure of the men that it's dealing with, and it thinks it's to its advantage to deal with them now.

Stephen Anderson: Tom, a lot of people say that North Korea is a client state of China. First, is it? And what does China have at stake in these negotiations?

Tom Bodine: Yeah. I don't believe it is. It once was, but I think if you take a look at the relationship between the two leaders of China and North Korea and their interactions, I think there's evidence there to suggest that that relationship has broken down quite mightily.

China, I think, strategically is looking for stability within the region. There's a lot to gain out of these talks from China's perspective. If you bring about the end of North Korea's nuclear problem, in the minds of China, that does a lot. It removes the need of South Korea and China to develop their own nuclear programs. It also reduces the necessity for Japan, South Korea, and the US to combine together in a regional ballistic missile defense network.

So I think they reduce that necessity, at least from China's point of view. And then, if you have a fully aspirational where North Korea and South Korea actually sign a peace treaty, now you reduce the need for US troops on the peninsula. And if you can do all of that, in China's mind, while maintaining the client state, the buffer state rather, of North Korea and prevent mass migrations into China, it's all wins from that perspective.

Karl Friedhoff: And this is what's really interesting and the fact that these direct talks, who's being cut out of this, China's being cut out. They hosted all of the previous rounds of the six-party talks. They've been very kind of active in trying to get all the parties together, so I wonder what Beijing is thinking right now, the fact that they do not have an inside line to seemingly North Korea. And I suspect that the United States and Japan are not going to be that willing to share that much information.

What the channels are between South Korea and Beijing are somewhat less clear, especially since there were informal sanctions that Beijing had levied on South Korea for a missile defense system previously. So South Korea may not be that inclined to share with Beijing what is happening either.

Stephen Anderson: Karl, can you talk a little bit more about what South Korea might want from this?

Karl Friedhoff: When you live on the peninsula, as I did for a very long time, of course, you become accustomed to living with this threat. So every president in South Korea, whether they're progressive or conservative, comes in with the idea that some progress towards reunification is going to happen on their watch. That's not to say they believe reunification will happen on their watch, but at least they can improve relations to a certain point. That happened under Lee Myung-bak, very conservative, happened under Park Geun-hye, who was also very conservative, and now we see Moon Jae-in on the progressive side moving towards that.

So by and large, I think they're looking for, number one, a North Korea that is not going to threaten them or kill their citizens. I think that's a fairly big deal. Some of the listeners may not remember in 2010, the North Koreans torpedoed a South Korean corvette in the East Sea or Yellow Sea that killed about 46 South Korean sailors. And then several months later, they shelled an island called Yeonpyeong island that killed two or three, maybe four civilians along with maybe a couple military members as well. Those images were very stark and spread everywhere, obviously, across the South Korea media.

So the South Koreans are going to be looking for, number one, just a reduction in tensions, and they want to head off any talk that has been growing lately of a "bloody nose" strike carried out by the Americans on North Korea because any probably military strike on North Korea by the Americans would result in retaliation against South Korea and, perhaps, Japan as well.

Stephen Anderson: Karl, you mentioned that you US has put some preconditions on these talks. Has North Korea agreed to those preconditions? Will they?

Karl Friedhoff: For a long time, the preconditions were for North Korea to recognize that the point of the talks was complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. I'm so tired of say that quite honestly. It's just generally referred to as CVID. But no, the North Koreans have not agreed to that. So this is what we talk about when we talk about talks about talks. That's a lot of talks in a single sentence. They're not there yet, so it's not yet clear what the summit is actually going to be about. Maybe they'll both come to some kind of conclusion. Maybe it will be for a continuation, as Commander Bodine said, that they'll have further and further meetings. But right now, the actual ground conditions for this are not agreed to by either party.

Stephen Anderson: All right. So we have the potential for conversation, potential for talks. It's not necessarily a done deal that it'll happen. Some conditions have been placed on it. We've got a question for either you or Tom. What does Kim Jong-un hope to get out of this, then, if it's not giving up all of his nuclear weapons?

Tom Bodine: I think it's what he always wants, it's regime survival. I think I take a little more optimistic view of the strategy currently in play by the United States with the maximum pressure. I think it has played into Kim Jong-un's leadership and his stability within the country. A nuclear program is a very expensive proposition in and of itself. And then you start clamping down not on just the primary but the secondary sources of funding that the regime has had to it. And you start seeing the regime leaders themselves start to be impacted, and that will bring about change. So strategically what does North Korea want from this? Regime survival, I think.

Karl Friedhoff: On a secondary note, and the other thing they're going to be looking for is the removal of US troops from South Korea. This is something that's often talked about in terms of a peace treaty. When you read through some of the five points that the South Koreans announced after they had their initial meetings in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-un, it was about that North Korea no longer wanted to see a "hostile policy." And any time they talk about that hostile policy, they're essentially talking about US troops and the Mutual Defense alliance with South Korea.

So that's been a longstanding goal, essentially, to push the US off of the peninsula and perhaps end that formal alliance. The reasoning being, well, if we conclude a peace treaty, the entire reasoning for American troops being there is because technically we're still at war with North Korea, but if a peace treaty is concluded, and there is no war, then why are American troops still there? So they're going to push very hard for that.

And then, I don't know if I quite ascribe to this, but there is a line of thinking out there that after this happens, then North Korea will attempt to essentially conquer South Korea. That may not be a military conquering, but it may mean trying to get the South Koreans to bend more towards North Korea with an eventual ally on aligning and reunifying.

Stephen Anderson: So why has no US president in the past agreed to sit down one-on-one with a North Korean leader?

Karl Friedhoff: It's often been the question of optics and legitimacy. No one wants to legitimate the North Korean leader with a visit. If you saw the pictures from when President Bill Clinton, and he was not the president at the time, he went there to win the release of a few journalists who had strayed across the Yalu from China into North Korea and then were arrested. He went there to win their freedom, he negotiated, and in the pictures that results that resulted, you'll notice he's standing there with no smile, no emotion whatsoever. It's very business-like. So none of the US leaders really want to offer that big photo op to the North Koreans.

On that, we often think, I think this is part of the bigger problem, that we tend to see American power and American presidents as legitimating power and as the stamp of approval. I don't think that is necessarily the right way to go about things. We look at North Korea, they have a leader who is in control of his country, they are members of the United Nations, so he doesn't need the legitimizing power of the United States when everyone kind of has already come to an agreement that they are a member of the international community, although one that is in very bad standing.

Stephen Anderson: Karl, you've laid out a lot of different objectives that the North Koreans have for these talks. Tom, what does the US hope to get out of this?

Tom Bodine: I think if we legitimately go down there and look to have a leader with leader talks, that denuclearization is the stated goal, and we should abide by that. I think if you truly want to go aspirational, then you could see a reduction in North Korean military, followed up by a signed peace agreement leading to all sorts of regional stability that we haven't seen. So I think there's reason to be optimistic. I think we have to have an eye on the past, which will shade that optimism. But it's okay in this instance to go in there with the state goal of, at minimum, denuclearization, but let's have an aspirational goal when we walk in there as well and see if there's something we can do to bring them back kind of into the fold of good-standing nations within the United Nations.

Stephen Anderson: Karl, Jarrett, one of our Facebook followers, asked the following question, "Assuming these talks even take place, what are the odds that anything meaningful comes from them, either in the short or the long run?"

Karl Friedhoff: At this point, I mean, if you're looking back at history, you would say they are not good. But we're now seeing something that's unprecedented. We have a president that fancies himself to be a grand negotiator, someone who can strike a very good deal. So on the days when I wake up and I'm feeling optimistic, I would say 50/50 at this point that maybe they'll go in there and maybe Kim Jong-un really has reassessed things, this is a big strategic shift and that President Trump will go in there, and they will strike a big deal. But I think at the very best, it's 50/50.

Stephen Anderson: So what happens next? What's going to happen in the next two, three months?

Karl Friedhoff: Well, first, what's going to happen is there's going to be a summit between Moon Jae-in in South Korea and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. That's going to happen along the DMZ. It'll be the first time that a North Korean leader has actually stepped foot in South Korea because at the DMZ, the way it's set up, there's a dividing line and some of the buildings actually are on both sides, so he'll have the opportunity to do that.

I think what comes out of that will be good precedent, and we'll have a better idea of where North Korea's intensions actually are for the upcoming summit. I expect them to, obviously, to play nice throughout that process. And from there, we'll get a better idea of where this is going. But for now, I think it's very difficult to say what comes next because we haven't really seen anything like this.

Tom Bodine: I would say that 50/50 for Karl, I think he's actually more optimistic than I am. Regardless of what I said, I think it's important to have aspirational goals. I think I tend to be more a student of history on this one and think that there's relatively small odds that something significant is going to come out of either the meeting with the South Koreans or with the Americans. That doesn't change the fact that we need to go in with a plan of having aspirational goals just in case the facts on the ground change.

That being said, from a military perspective and really where I think we should go from here is I don't think much changes on the ground. Until facts on the ground change, America's strategic outlook should remain exactly the same. And I think we have to be careful not to become overly optimistic or lulled into a sense of something is going to happen and change what we're doing prior to we see actual events on the ground change, which I think North Korea is very adept at having done in the past.

Karl Friedhoff: And one of the real positives to take away is the fact that the South Korean leader has offered basically nothing for this. This has been all on the North Koreans. The South Korea leader has come out and said that there will be no rollback of sanctions, there will be no aid packages until North Korea takes steps towards denuclearization. So perhaps North Korea, if the sanctions are really biding, and there is some anecdotal evidence that suggests that, that North Korea may start to do some of those rollbacks in anticipation of getting those in. So I think we're going to see him test South Korea and how much they're willing to give and how little he can give away to then set up the meeting with President Trump.

Stephen Anderson: Karl, a lot of people have said that the North Korean regime exists because they've had this progress towards nuclear weapons and now they're there. As Tom said, their goal is always regime survival. Getting rid of those nuclear weapons, which is what brought the US to the table, doesn't that risk their survival?

Karl Friedhoff: Yeah, absolutely it does. And they looked very closely at the examples of Iraq, of Libya, of other places that the US has been able to go in and impose their will. Reading through all of their documents, you read through the KCNA, which is their kind of official website, and other of their things that come out of their Workers' Party. All of these make it very clear that nuclear weapons are a means of existence. It's now even enshrined in their constitution, so it's something they take very seriously. So if they were to suddenly give them up, they would have a lot of explaining to do, I think, even to themselves about why.

Stephen Anderson: It looks to me that success from the North Korean perspective and success from the Americans' perspective look very different. How are they going to close that gap?

Tom Bodine: I think Karl said it earlier. It's all about regime survival, so if this idea of a nuclear power is in the minds and the hearts and the constitution of the North Koreans, then what are we going to give? What is the world and the US willing to give to North Korea to ensure a denuclearized North Korea? And I think there's why you have professional negotiators.

Karl Friedhoff: And let's keep in mind that nuclear weapons is not the end of this. The human rights abuses continue to be carried out in North Korea. There are prison camps that are very large and have anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 occupants, people who are in these prisons for a range of political crimes. Even if they give up the nuclear weapons, does that mean the international community is suddenly going to forget about the human rights abuses? Of course, the regime knows that's not true. They know that once the nuclear weapons are gone, that's the first step, and then next will be human rights abuses, and this is going to an ongoing thing. So that's why I'm not too super optimistic that North Korea has any intention of giving up its weapons because that's not the end game.

Stephen Anderson: That leads me to a final question from our Facebook audience, from Emma. How would be effectively verify a scale back of the nuclear program? Would it go through the IAEA? Are we good at this?

Karl Friedhoff: Yeah, it would certainly go through the IAEA, and IAEA is very good at what they do. When North Korea initially was cheating on its nuclear kind of safeguards, the IAEA was able to go in and basically identify that there were so many such-and-such grams of plutonium that were missing, that were unaccounted for. So they were able to pick that out very quickly and very easily.

But what it will rely on is North Korea giving us all of the sites. They have declared nuclear sites and probably quite a few undeclared sites, the things that we don't even know exist yet. In 2001, there were claims of underground enrichment facilities. That's what kind of led to the kickoff of one of the big nuclear crises. So if they do that and the IAEA is given full access, then of course they'll be able to go in and verify all of that because getting around the laws of physics is often very difficult.

Stephen Anderson: Just one clarification, the IAEA is the International Atomic Energy Agency. I've got a final question for the two of you. What should we watch for as we move forward?

Tom Bodine: Real movement. I think there's going to be a lot of talk, and there's going to be talks about talks. I think you're going to have to look for real movement, again, of the facts on the ground. How serious is North Korea about joining the Americans in finding a solution to the current conflict, or is this just more of the same from them? Personally, I think it's worth the risk to go talk to them, but we have to have that eye on what is going to change. And we need to ensure that we stick to our strategy until the facts do indeed change.

Karl Friedhoff: One of the things to watch out for is what's going to happen within the US administration itself. Just today, Rex Tillerson, it was announced that he would be out as secretary of state and that the former CIA director, well, soon-to-be former CIA director, Mike Pompeo, will be taking over. So it looks like there are increasing number of hardliners on North Korea within the Trump administration. Secretary Tillerson had always advocated for talks, as he should do as the secretary of state. And now, people who are advocating for diplomacy are basically down to Secretary Mattis as the Department of Defense. If there is going to be a decrease in the number of people calling for diplomacy with North Korea, that is something North Korea's going to be looking at.

So if the administration can't keep its messaging correct, that is, people who are hardliners on North Korea are out of step with what the president is saying, where the president suddenly wants diplomacy, and others are saying, "Well, we shouldn't be doing this," that is something that is going to raise, I think, red flags for North Korea and may scare them off, saying that the United States is not sincere in what it's doing. And this question of sincerity is something that comes up all the time on the Korean Peninsula, not only between the Koreas but in Korean relations with other partners as well.

Stephen Anderson: Thank you, Karl, thank you, Tom, for joining us to discuss the potential meeting between North Korea's Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump. And thank you for turning in to this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have any questions about anything you heard, ask them on our Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook group. And as a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked the show, please subscribe and share this episode with your friends. You can find us under "Deep Dish on Global Affairs" wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio. Joe Palermo is our editor. I'm Stephen Anderson. We'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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