Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

US President Donald Trump’s surprise acceptance of an invitation to direct dialogue with Kim Jong-un has prompted a mix of cautious optimism and uneasiness among analysts and pundits. Though doubts about the Trump administration’s preparedness for the event linger, the move has been welcomed by many, including leaders in South Korea and China eager to ease tensions with North Korea.

In a special report published by North Korea specialist website 38 North on Monday, analysts look at what a “third way” forward in dealing with Pyongyang – distinct from economic or military pressure – would look like. Their conclusion doesn’t do much to alleviate any feelings of unease about the planned Trump-Kim summit, although there is some room for hope.

Despite failure of diplomatic efforts in past US administrations, analysts Carla Freeman and Mel Gurtov write in the report that some new developments, unique in the history of US-North Korea relations, may be cause for optimism.

“The inter-Korean dialogue initiated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, while redolent of Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy,’ has given South Korea an unprecedented intermediary role in moving the US and North Korea toward engagement,” they write.

“Significantly, Washington appears to have accepted this approach, at least for now.… A US approach in tune with South Korean interests also insulates against the possibility of two separate and uncoordinated dialogues taking place – an inter-Korean dialogue and a US-DPRK dialogue – that creates discord in the alliance that could be exploited by North Korea.”

It goes without saying that the nature of Trump himself is also unique in the history of the relationship, but his mercurial temperament makes it a bit challenging to plug into this equation. Perhaps the biggest risk identified by Freeman and Gurtov is unrealistic expectations on the side of Trump not being met. The president, along with his national security adviser John Bolton and pick to be secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have made driving a hard bargain in such deals a signature issue with their criticisms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Will they set the bar lower in talks with Kim?

“Trump will have to be willing to entertain proposals for less than immediate outcomes,” the analysts conclude. If not, they suggest, there is not much reason to be optimistic.

“If his summit with North Korea collapses amid disappointed expectations, this could pave the way for re-energizing military options, turning an opportunity into catastrophe. It could also seriously disrupt US-ROK relations. To be sure, there is no guarantee that engagement will produce mutual gains that set the Korean Peninsula on a positive new course.”

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