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Hope, with a few qualifications: Local experts weigh in on North Korean negotiations

UPDATED: Mon., June 11, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (Evan Vucci / AP)
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (Evan Vucci / AP)

By treating North Korea as a legitimate country, the United States on Tuesday morning in Singapore may have taken the first steps toward reducing tensions, says Majid Sharifi, director of international affairs at Eastern Washington University.

“For the last 70 years we’ve been waiting for a regime change,” Sharifi said.

Now Kim Jong Un is being given the affirmation his father and grandfather never received, and the historic summit could make a difference, he said.

All of that still doesn’t guarantee an immediate change, though.

Bill Smith, chair of international studies at the University of Idaho, said he and many of his colleagues are tentatively hopeful about the negotiations between Kim and President Donald Trump.

“You really do have a nontraditional approach to international negotiations,” he said. “There’s always been the insistence that North Korea not be treated as an equal.”

Smith has some hope the summit may lead to a positive outcome for both countries, he said, although he’s not certain yet that much will come out of it.

“It doesn’t sound like it’s promising, but we don’t know,” he said. The summit overturns all previous standards for international relations with North Korea, so nobody knows what will happen.

“It could lead to something unique,” he said.

The biggest issue slated for discussion is denuclearization.

The United States has called for a complete end to North Korea’s nuclear program. But on North Korea’s side, “denuclearization” might also mean the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.

Whether Trump is willing to make that move is unknown.

“We know they will not give up their nuclear weapons immediately because they have invested 40 years in that,” Sharifi said. And North Korea might also be hesitant to accept an agreement after the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.

“The credibility of the U.S. is very low at the international level,” he said. “They will be thinking that promises are not good.”

But even if the two don’t come to an agreement on nuclear weapons, the summit might not be a complete loss.

If talks extend to other, more humanitarian issues, the Korean public might see a significant change from the summit, Smith said.

Unlike the Iran nuclear deal, Trump’s summit with North Korea has the possibility to extend to broader humanitarian issues. That might mean improvements in the daily life of North Koreans if talks go well.

“The most important things for North Korea are bread, energy and lifting of sanctions,” Sharifi said.

Despite the challenges the leaders will face as they attempt to reach a consensus, Sharifi said, he thinks agreeing to meet in the way Trump did has already improved relations.

“Indirectly and directly, the Korean people are going to benefit,” he said.

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