Despite the turbulence and drama on the Korean Peninsula over the past week defying one’s wildest imagination, the much anticipated summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea is planned to be held on June 12th in Singapore. While the exact timing and location of a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will remain fluid until both men physically enter the same room, the odds that a summit will occur currently appear high.
After days of uncertainty, especially after President Trump withdrew from his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, acting almost as impulsively as when he first agreed to the meeting in early March. Following a conciliatory response from Pyongyang’s senior nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan, the president two days later sharply reversed course and said that the summit will still take place.
However, there are serious doubts as to what the outcome will be. There is as yet no U.S.-North Korea agreement on the terms of a summit, and time is running out to reach such an understanding. An unspoken but unmistakable anxiety thus pervades these intensified political and diplomatic maneuvers. Only a week before President Trump’s presumed departure for Singapore, it is stunning how little remains agreed to, even in broad conceptual terms. Advocates of diplomacy argue that this is the purpose of face-to-face negotiations. But the contrasts in the language and expectations of the two leaderships remain glaring, even after two visits by Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang, first as CIA director and subsequently as secretary of state.
The fundamental issue is what the summit is supposed to be about. The United States is seeking a good faith gesture demonstrating Kim Jong-un’s readiness to move toward complete and verifiable denuclearization. However, this objective derives from American terms of reference: It presumes that all the North’s nuclear weaponry would be dismantled, that any additional fissile material would be accounted for and removed, that highly intrusive inspections would be arranged, and that all means of weapons production would be eliminated.
The diplomatic history between the United States and North Korea is littered with dashed hopes and broken promises. In 1994, North Korea agreed to dismantle its plutonium-production reactors in exchange for civilian power reactors from the West. In 2005, North Korea committed, through the Six-Party Talks, to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” In 2012, the United States and North Korea agreed that North Korea would put a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and the United States would provide substantial food aid.
Words have not matched deeds. During this period, North Korea has developed a missile capable of striking anywhere in the United States. It has tested a nuclear warhead 10 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And from its actions in other areas, it has demonstrated a willingness to employ weapons of mass destruction, such as in the apparent assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother with a chemical nerve agent at a crowded Malaysian airport.
Given this dismal record, why should anyone hold out hope for progress? At the most fundamental level, the argument for engagement boils down to a bet that Trump and Kim each differ enough from their predecessors that a Venn diagram of their interests might overlap sufficiently to produce a deal. According to this logic, Trump would seek Kim’s agreement for near-term, complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization and, in exchange, Kim would receive normalization of relations with the United States, a treaty ending the Korean War, assurances of American support for his continued rule, admission into the community of nations, and support for North Korea’s economic development.
Trump is an unconventional leader who will take risks that his predecessors would not. He is situationally flexible, able to overlook North Korean human rights atrocities one day and condemn them on another day. President Moon has a clear vision for the future of the Korean Peninsula, views relaxation of tensions between the United States and North Korea as critical for achievement of his vision, and has been tireless in seeking to bring Trump and Kim together.
There also is some sense that Kim Jong-un is distinct from his grandfather and father in his determination to modernize North Korea. Kim faces challenges his forebears did not—the penetration of information from the outside world, the loosening of state control over commerce, the spread of consumerism, the emergence of a moneyed class that does not owe its privileged position to the beneficence of the regime, and the networking of society through the steady proliferation of cellphones.
Whereas many support Trump’s effort to test whether diplomacy can yield a breakthrough, virtually no North Korea analyst inside or outside of the US government expect Kim Jong-un to relinquish his nuclear weapons.
Assuming that Trump and Kim meet, there are four plausible paths that could emerge from the summit: success; an inconclusive outcome; inconclusive outcome leading to incremental, positive next steps; or breakdown leading to increased hostilities.
While a summit between Trump and Kim would be historic, it is unlikely to be decisive. This is not the fault of either Trump or Kim, but rather a reflection that intractable, decades-long strategic challenges rarely—if ever—get resolved in single encounters.
This suggests that expectations need to be managed and preparations need to be made for the critical period that follows a Trump-Kim summit. Now is the time for policymakers to work methodically through what Washington will expect of Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and Moscow going forward; what conditions need to be met to introduce incentives into the negotiations; whether and when to increase or decrease external pressure on North Korea; how to minimize the threat from North Korea until denuclearization is achieved; and whether to seek to increase internal stress on the North Korea regime while talks are ongoing. While the pageantry and planning of summits is exciting, what follows likely will be what will have the most impact.