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4 things to remember about the North Korea talks

A South Korean army soldier stands near the

A South Korean army soldier stands near the loudspeakers near the border area between South Korea and North Korea in Yeoncheon. Credit: AP / Lim Tae-hoon

It’s been a historic week on the Korean Peninsula. The North-South summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in was nothing short of extraordinary. Pictures and videos allowed us to watch history unfolding, and the excitement was reminiscent of 1989, when we witnessed the momentous thawing of relations between East and West Germany.

The welcome meeting at the Demilitarized Zone gave everybody something to root for - after all, leaders meeting each other is much better than leaders shouting or tweeting at each other - but there remain reasons for skepticism about the talks.

Before we celebrate prematurely, let’s keep some perspective in mind:

1. We’ve been here before.

The leaders of North Korea and South Korea have met before, in 2000 and 2007. Previous North-South summits feted as historic moments only managed to achieve paper promises and phony progress. The six-party talks with the United States, China, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia achieved much of the same.

So far, we have only words. And all are words that have been previously spoken, including denuclearization and the willingness to give up nukes if the United States promises not to invade Korea. As the six-party talks’ 2005 joint agreement read, “the United States affirmed it . has no intention to attack or invade (North Korea) with nuclear or conventional weapons” and “(North Korea) committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”

The summit is exciting, but so far it’s produced nothing new.

2. This time could be different; Trump is here and Kim is nuclear.

While caution remains the watchword with North Korea, there are reasons to believe this time could be different.

First, President Donald Trump’s addition brought a galvanizing force to the equation. Trump’s fiery rhetoric and economic pressure have done much to bring Kim Jong Un to the table, and they also added urgency to the South Korean side. Indeed, the newest joint declaration clearly shows South Korea’s anxiousness about the increasing risk of war on the Korean Peninsula.

Second, and perhaps even more important, Kim raised the stakes by arriving as a nuclear power. His acquisition of a viable nuclear threat - possibly as many as 60 nuclear weapons and the capability to deliver them over short, medium and likely intercontinental distances - gives him leverage that neither his father nor his grandfather possessed.

The dynamics from 2000 and 2007 have fundamentally changed, and Kim’s ability to extract meetings from South Korea’s President Moon, China’s President Xi Jinping and even possibly a sitting president of the United States is evidence of Kim’s new global stature. The fact that they’re meeting with him at all is a concession - if not in their minds, then at least in his.

3. Any peace agreement will hinge on North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons.

The big question is whether Kim is willing to give up the nuclear capabilities his country acquired at such great cost. After enduring decades of economic depravity to obtain a credible nuclear threat, it’s hard to imagine Kim would simply let that go.

No country in the history of the world has openly tested nuclear weapons and then given them away under international pressure. South Africa appears to be the lone exception, but it only disarmed for domestic reasons, never openly tested its weapons and there was little international pressure to disarm.

Given the global community’s total failure in this regard, no North Korea expert I know thinks that North Korea will be the world’s first country to surrender its cache.

4. It will be vital to manage expectations.

Everyone involved would like to produce a grand bargain. But the “triple constraint” theory of project management applies to international relations as well: Good, cheap, fast - you can pick only two.

Any progress toward a strong, meaningful agreement is likely to happen in slow motion, and it will require costly concessions from each party.

At best, these initial meetings will open longer negotiations toward the common goal of a Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons and with a lasting peace.

Expecting anything more at this stage is likely to prove disappointing.

Ivo H. Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was the U.S. permanent representative to NATO under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.