North Korea: Waving, not drowning

The probability of the proposed Kim Jong-un/Donald Trump summit taking place is rising

“The United States and North Korea have been holding secret, direct talks to prepare for a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, a sign that planning for the highly anticipated meeting is progressing….”

Elise Labott et al, CNN, 7 April 2018

Even though no date or venue has yet been set (reportedly), it does now seem very likely that the proposed Kim Jong-un/Donald Trump summit will go ahead in June if not May (possibly in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator). In addition to direct meetings between North Korean and US officials, Kim Jong-un is quoted in the official North Korean press as saying that 'talks' with the US are likely (although he has yet to say anything publicly about the possible summit). Furthermore, a senior North Korean official is visiting Moscow, which may be relevant given Russia's seat in the old six-party process.

I am therefore slightly revising the probabilities for the scenarios I laid out in my 31 March article, as follows:

  • Scenario 1 — the summit doesn’t happen: 10% probability (down from 25%);
  • Scenario 2A — the summit takes place and it is agreed to launch a negotiating process (possibly a revival of the six-party talks): 40% probability (up from 30%);
  • Scenario 2B — the summit takes place but quickly breaks down acrimoniously (eg over the definition of ‘denuclearisation’): 20% probability (up from 15%);
  • Scenario 2C — the summit takes place and agreement is reached after Mr Trump accepts the majority of Kim Jong-un’s conditions for denuclearisation: probability 30% (no change).

The key point here is that the mere fact of North Korea and the US talking directly to one another, albeit in back channels, should help to build confidence on the part of both parties, thereby significantly increasing the probability that a summit would mark the start of a process, in my view.

However, this still doesn’t give us any indication of the likely end game. So, for now at least, I am going to stick with my 25% probability of violent conflict breaking out on the Korean peninsula at some point in the near- to medium-term. But I think the risk of war this year has slipped lower again, maybe back to the 10% probability I had at the start of the year (compared to 25% in mid-March). Combined with Scenario 2C, this offers a 60% probability of us continuing on something close to the current trajectory through into 2019.

Alastair Newton

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