SEOUL/TOKYO -- U.S. President Donald Trump surprised the world by agreeing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, setting the scene for an historic encounter between two countries that until recently had been threatening to attack each other. The summit's outcome is anything but predictable. Here are some pointers as to why the two decided to meet, and how the meeting may go.
One reason Pyongyang offered to meet is that the Trump administration's hard-line approach was finally building up fears that Washington's use of the military option was getting imminent. Vice President Mike Pence's shunning of the North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games effectively increased that fear.
North Korea seems to have two more objectives. One is to loosen the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and United Nations Security Council members including China. The sanctions have been choking the communist dictatorship, making relaxation of the economic pressure an urgent issue. Secondly, the regime may be buying time to keep building its nuclear arsenal in secret, while negotiations take place. Some experts believe North Korea needs a bit more time to perfect its nuclear and missile programs.
The U.S. seems to think the opposite. The superpower seeks a way to end North Korea's nuclear and missile developments as soon as possible, before Kim's regime beefs up its technology and acquires the capacity for a massive strike on U.S. territory with its nuclear missiles.
According to one U.S. official who wished to remain anonymous, the U.S. thinks "Kim Jong Un is the one person who is able to make decisions under their authoritarian, uniquely authoritarian, or totalitarian system." The U.S. seems to believe that convincing the leader is the best available way of effecting the peninsula's denuclearization.
Where will the summit take place?
Speculation is rising over where the historic first meeting between the two countries' leaders will be held. The U.S. only said the meeting would be held "at a place and time to be determined."
Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University, Sejong, said that South Korea is a strong candidate for the venue because both Trump and Kim would be reluctant to visit their counterpart's country for security reasons.
"The first option is maybe Panmunjeom because they do not need to sleep there," said Nam. Panmunjeom is in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, so Kim could return to Pyongyang while Trump stayed in Seoul after the meeting. "The other option is maybe Jeju Island," according to Nam. Jeju is a South Korean resort island which has hosted many international conferences.
To avoid the appearance of making too many concessions, the two parties may end up holding the summit in a third country, such as Switzerland or Singapore.
How did South Korea, Japan and China react?
South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed his support for the two parties' decision. "If the two people meet, following the inter-Korea summit, complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula will be on the right track," Moon said in a statement, giving himself some credit as an icebreaker on the issue.
Japan is feeling a sense of unease. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe valued Pyongyang's change of stance, but said his administration "will keep maximizing pressure until North Korea takes a concrete [denuclearization] step." Abe spoke to Trump by phone on Friday. He plans to visit the U.S. by April to meet the president. For Japan, whether Pyongyang agrees to denuclearize or merely freeze its nuclear program is critical. Some experts believe that a freeze would just lock in the rogue state's limited nuclear capacity, which can still hit Japan and South Korea, while the U.S. remains out of range.
China welcomed the positive signals from the U.S. and North Korea. "We hope that all parties will demonstrate political courage," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang Friday. China hoped that all parties "do their best to restart dialogue and negotiation for the peaceful settlement of the peninsula nuclear issue," he added.
But this could be merely an official line. Some experts see China becoming more cautious on the U.S. and North Korea getting closer. The world's second-biggest economy has acted as one of the key actors in resolving the Korean Peninsula crisis. To some extent, this role has functioned as a diplomatic card that stops the U.S. being too tough on other issues such as trade frictions. Detente could take the card away from China.
What outcome do experts expect from the summit?
Paik Hak-soon, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, said that a long and winding road awaits the denuclearization talks. The veteran researcher, who has studied North Korea for more than two decades, said that Pyongyang's successful development of an intercontinental ballistic missile and hydrogen bomb gave North Korea confidence that it could talk with the U.S. on an equal footing.
"I expect that it will take a very long time and [be a] complicated process [for the talks.] And there will be many ups and downs. It is because the U.S. will require CVID, while North Korea wants to be guaranteed for what they have now." CVID stands for Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, was rather pessimistic about how the meeting would go. "The outcome is unlikely to be significant," he said. "Trump has no experience in diplomacy, and he is not even a good dealmaker, based on his business record."
"One risk is that Trump, thinking he is a good dealmaker, will agree to something highly detrimental to stakeholders such as South Korea and Japan," Dujarric warned.
Some specialists say the meeting may not happen at all if the pre-negotiation process does not go well. "North Korea has to present concrete denuclearization steps to the U.S. in one-to-two months in order to make the meeting actually happen," said Lee Jong-wong, a professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University. "At the same time, North Korea has to convince its citizens what benefit they get from lifted sanctions in return of nuclear disarmament."
How capable a diplomat is Kim?
Kim Jong Un's diplomatic capability is unknown to the world, simply because he has not met foreign leaders at all since he took over as North Korea's leader. He has not even left the country, at least since he ascended to his present position. But his four-hour dinner meeting with South Korean envoys on Monday offers some glimpses of his diplomatic style.
The Blue House presidential office said that Kim was frank and decisive during the meeting held in Pyongyang, discussing all the agendas which President Moon Jae-in had suggested in his meeting with Kim Yo Jong, the leader's sister, in Seoul last month.
His predecessor, and father, Kim Jong Il, was known to be a cautious and tough negotiator. In 2002 and 2004, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan visited Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il.
As a result of this negotiation between the two countries, Japan managed to take home some of the abductees captured and sent from Japan by North Korea. In return, the North Korean regime received 250 tons of food aid and $10 million-worth of medical goods.
The U.S. side is not fully equipped with diplomatic tools either. The U.S. key official on North Korea, special envoy Joseph Yun, announced his retirement in late February. No successors have been named so far. More than a year in, the Trump administration has not nominated an ambassador to South Korea. The Senate has not even confirmed the top U.S. diplomat to eastern Asia.