Sitting in the Oval Office on May 22 with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, President Trump was cautious about whether his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would take place June 12. The mood in the White House about the prospects for a meeting is swinging between hopeful and subdued.
If you happen to be a gambler, you would be wise to bet on diplomacy stalling, if not collapsing. When Washington and Pyongyang finally get past their initial jockeying over the summit’s start date, both will soon discover just how treacherous this negotiation will be.
The logistics of North Korean denuclearization alone could prevent success. Arriving at a consensus on the process itself could be like trying to force a round peg into a square hole. Washington and Pyongyang are presenting different interpretations of what denuclearization means to the world (more on that later), and they clearly have conflicting expectations about how the mechanics would work.
The Trump administration has trumpeted a maximalist position. According to Washington’s timeline, North Korea should commit immediately to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization before any economic or political incentives are granted to the Kim regime. The bottom line for the Trump administration is simple, straightforward and downright idealistic: Only after Pyongyang proves its sincerity with concrete actions would the regime receive the diplomatic recognition, political normalization and financial sanctions relief it is desperately seeking.
The North Koreans have already indicated that one-sided concessions will inherently be a nonstarter. Pyongyang is as mistrustful of U.S. intentions as Americans are of North Korea’s motivations. To Kim, an appropriate scheme, if it exists at all, consists of a phased, step-by-step process. On Tuesday, Trump signaled some flexibility: “It would be better,” he said, if Pyongyang’s nukes were dismantled “all in one. Does it have to be? I don’t think I want to totally commit myself.” He would be smart to follow his own guidance.
A different controversy might also upend the summit: What to do about North Korea’s other weapons of mass destruction. Because Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal is of such concern, no one talks much about the rest of the deadly unconventional weapons at Kim’s disposal.
As was exhibited graphically during the 2017 assassination of Kim’s older half brother in a Malaysian airport, the Kim government retains a sizable stockpile of chemical weapons estimated to be in the range of 2,500 to 5,000 tons. This program includes the extremely fatal VX nerve agent that killed Kim Jong Nam within 20 minutes of exposure.
North Korea almost certainly also has a biological weapons program, a capability the U.S. intelligence community has never been able to assess with high confidence or accuracy. According to a report from Harvard University’s Belfer Center, Pyongyang is thought to have a number of deadly agents in its hands, including anthrax, cholera and the plague.
Will U.S. negotiators insist that Kim put all of his WMD programs on the table for destruction? It is hard to believe that Kim would consider such a demand. For Trump, particularly after his pronouncements about chemical warfare in Syria, it may be nonnegotiable.
Most crucially, Kim and Trump’s red lines may be unbridgeable. Although the North Korean dictator has been talking about peace treaties and a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, there is a strong likelihood that he never intended to follow through. As last week’s “no unilateral denuclearization” announcement indicated, it defies common sense for the Kim regime to give up its nuclear weapons after decades of research, development and testing. North Korea has endured harsh sanctions, political isolation and financial deprivation; why would it destroy its functioning nuclear deterrent at the urging of the U.S. now?
In the event the North Koreans offer Trump something short of the full nuclear dismantlement Trump is anticipating, the president will be confronted with a big decision. He may pull U.S. officials from the room, return to the status-quo ante, try to strengthen the maximum-pressure sanctions campaign and hope that Pyongyang will return to the table at a later date in a desperate financial state. Or he could stay in the room, and authorize his negotiators to probe the North Koreans on the next best thing: a package of nuclear arms control limitations that may include Pyongyang’s signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a permanent freeze and cap on North Korea’s nuclear warheads, and unfettered inspections throughout the country’s nuclear infrastructure.
Politically, walking away from the table would be seen in Washington as an act of courage and a demonstration of Trump’s willingness to stand up to Kim. It would be in keeping with Trump’s bluster and transactional nature — a “win” or nothing at all. But in pure policy terms, saying “no” to anything less than North Korea’s complete denuclearization will bring the world back to the atmospherics of 2017, when Pyongyang was testing nuclear weapons and launching ballistic missiles with ever-increasing frequency. And that could look like a loss, especially for a president who prides himself on being a master dealmaker.
The White House has a great deal riding on the North Korea summit. It could either be a resounding, unprecedented success, or the latest embarrassment in a long line of American failures on North Korea. As this week’s posturing shows, high-stakes diplomacy can start to teeter on a moment’s notice. The summit may be called off. Even if it goes forward, Trump, Kim and the rest of us would be wise to manage our expectations.