SEOUL: Affairs on the Korean Peninsula took an unexpected, and possibly historic, turn on Friday (Mar 9), as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and United States President Donald Trump - two men who have traded threats and insults for months - came to an agreement to hold a meeting by May.
If the two were to get together in person, it would be the first time a sitting US president has met a North Korean leader.
At stake is nothing less than a possible solution to a decades-long, seemingly intractable standoff.
Washington has long insisted that before any meaningful dialogue can take place, North Korea must take not just freeze its nuclear development, but take verifiable steps toward dismantling its nuclear programme.
North Korea has insisted that its nukes are off the table, that they’ll never give up ambitions of being a nuclear power.
Before getting into whether there is any hope that the two sides can reach an agreement whereby North Korea agrees to denuclearise, it is important to note that this would just be a meeting, not formal negotiations.
Nevertheless, the two leaders at least have a chance to build some kind of rapport and achieve a rare bit of human contact between two Cold War-era enemies. This could end up being a turning point, or the latest disappointment in a long string of failed attempts to address North Korea’s nuclear programme.
GREED AND FEAR
So after months of tensions, how did we get to this point?
There’s an old saying that financial markets are motivated by two emotions - greed and fear. North Korea appears to be acting on behalf of some combination of these two basic emotions.
First, the fear. More than any other US leader, Trump has come across in his statements as willing to initiate a war with North Korea.
The Pyongyang leadership knows it could never triumph in such a conflict, and as chatter about the possibility of war escalated in recent months, appears to have determined that playing nice with South Korea - a close US ally - would make Washington less likely to push for war.
Extending an olive branch to Washington also makes it all but impossible for the US to claim that North Korea refuses to negotiate and war is the only option.
As for greed, while North Korea has been willing to grit its teeth and endure untold economic losses in favor of pursuing nuclear weapons, it is possible that all those sanctions are taking a toll on life in the North.
Since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has focused his energy and the country’s resources on building up the military; it is possible that Kim is transiting to another phase of his leadership where he will place more importance on developing the North’s economy.
BREAKING THE ICE, NOT NEGOTIATIONS WITH GRANULAR DETAILS
That brings us to the question of what North Korea hopes to gain from a meeting. In the past, Pyongyang has used platforms like the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear programme as a way of squeezing concessions, such as financial aid, out of the international community.
Back then, Pyongyang would push for sweeteners on the condition that it take steps toward ending its nuclear development. The legacy of those talks is having illustrated that North Korea does not negotiate in good faith: They took the aid, and, sometime later, moved ahead in developing their nukes.
It is therefore entirely possible that North Korea is not sincere in wanting negotiations, but is simply stalling for time while creating the impression of wanting peace.
Keep in mind that North Korea has not pledged to make any substantive move to get rid of its nukes.
The White House is saying that Trump won’t be played, that sanctions on North Korea will remain in effect and, in the words of a US official, Trump, “is not prepared to reward North Korea in exchange for talks".
At this point it is only possible to guess at what the agenda for a meeting might be.
If it goes ahead, it will be a forum for breaking the ice, not digging into granular details with the objective of coming out with an agreement on a matter like the normalisation of US-North Korea relations, or a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.
Both sides would be wise to approach the meeting with the most modest of objectives.
Given that this would be the first ever meeting of its kind, simply smiling and having neither side get up and storm out mid-meeting would be a success.
RECOGNITION FROM AN UNCONVENTIONAL LEADER
But in addition to fear and greed, there is another factor motivating North Korea, and something else they could be hoping to gain.
The Pyongyang regime cares about notions of recognition; it is vulnerable to what it perceives as slights or disrespectful treatment.
Pyongyang has long wanted direct talks with the US for the credibility an equal-terms meeting with a US president would confer.
In Trump, Pyongyang sees an unconventional leader more likely to depart from standard practice and agree to hold a meeting.
DENUCLEARISATION SOMETHING NORTH KOREA MUST DECIDE ON
The US is still treading carefully, with the same US official saying any meeting “would require us avoiding the mistakes that have been made over the past 27 years of dialogue and failed approaches to denuclearising North Korea”.
The use of the passive voice (“denuclearising North Korea”) is noteworthy in it strips Pyongyang of agency, implying that denuclearisation is something that would happen to the North, not something it would choose and carry out itself.
The reality is that denuclearisation is something North Korea would have to decide on, and there is no reason to believe that after decades of stubborn refusals and millions in investment it would stop pursuing nukes because it wants peace.
Nevertheless, if both countries can approach the meeting with open minds and a sincere intention to listen to the other side, and walk away with nothing more than handshakes and plans to meet again some time, that would make war less likely, and be a victory for all.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.