President Trump is feeling good about his own upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un following the reclusive North Korean leader’s first foreign trip, to China for talks with President Xi Jinping, earlier this week.
Saying that he had received a message from Xi that the meeting had gone well and that Kim was looking forward to meeting the U.S. president, Trump tweeted on Wednesday, “For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a small possibility. Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting!”
Is “denuclearization” really an option?
It’s worth remembering that in the same New Year’s Day address in which Kim offered to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, beginning this current round of diplomatic engagement, he also boasted about “the accomplishment of the great, historic cause of perfecting the national nuclear forces.” He warned, “Our country’s nuclear forces are capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States, and they constitute a powerful deterrent that prevents it from starting an adventurous war. In no way would the United States dare to ignite a war against me and our country.”
In other words, Kim views North Korea’s ability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons as his best protection from meeting the same fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. This sounds like a man who’s going to need a lot of reassuring before he gives that deterrent up.
According to the account of the Kim–Xi meeting by China’s state-run news agency Xinhua, Kim said, “The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”
North Korea’s KCNA media agency didn’t actually mention denuclearization at all in its account of the meeting, so as with the initial invitation to Trump, which came via South Korean intermediaries without public comment from the North, the U.S. is relying on third parties to convey Kim’s positions. (Trump has not always appeared to understand this distinction.)
In this case, the “progressive and synchronous” measures that Kim wants, according to the Chinese account, sound quite a bit like Beijing’s preferred option for resolving the crisis, known as “dual suspension” or “freeze for freeze.” This would involve halting the joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises—which the North views as preparations for an invasion—in return for North Korea halting its nuclear program. To actually “denuclearize,” give up the weapons it already has, North Korea would probably demand even more concessions, such as the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea and the withdrawal of the American “nuclear umbrella” commitment from South Korea and Japan.
Given Trump’s desire to strike a historic deal, as well as the fact that he has already threatened on various occasions to remove troops from South Korea, which he seems to view as a freeloading deadbeat, it’s conceivable that Trump could agree to something like this. But while Secretary of Defense James Mattis and incoming national security adviser John Bolton may not agree on much, they both seem equally likely to tackle Trump to the ground before he could make such a commitment.
We can surmise from what few public statements Kim has made that, having acquired his long-sought nuclear deterrent, he is going into these talks eager to see what the U.S. and its allies are willing to do to convince him he doesn’t need it. Trump, on the other hand, seems to be going into them under the premise that “maximum pressure” has brought North Korea to its knees and that it will be willing to make concessions to him that it wouldn’t make to his predecessors. Under the best conditions, these talks would be a low-stakes, low-expectations affair, merely meant to explore whether there are further avenues for diplomacy between the two sides. But Trump’s talk of “denuclearization” is raising expectations sky high, which is unfortunate.
If Trump discovers that denuclearization is not actually on the table, or that the price for it is more than the U.S. would ever be willing to pay, we’re likely to see this brief hopeful era of diplomacy coming to an abrupt end.