The professionals are taking over the U.S.–North Korea summit. It’s a bit late—serious diplomacy usually precedes pageantry by many months, not two weeks—but if President Trump can give up his Nobel-laced daydreams of instant peace and, instead, live with a modest reduction of tension, then the summit might end in success.
Several signs of new seriousness have emerged in just the past few days. First, Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, was reassigned to lead a team of negotiators who have flown to Pyongyang for pre-summit talks with senior North Korean officials. Sung Kim has previously worked as President Obama’s ambassador to South Korea and his special representative on North Korean policy—as well as President George W. Bush’s special envoy to the Six-Party Talks on North Korean arms control.
In other words, for the first time, Trump has an experienced, nonpartisan Korea specialist working at a high level on his Korea policy.
Second, a U.S. travel ban was lifted on North Korean Gen. Kim Yong-chol so that he can fly to New York, presumably to discuss the summit with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Gen. Kim, his country’s top spy and vice chairman of its ruling party, accompanied Kim Jong-un to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and has attended the key pre-summit meetings since.
Scott Snyder, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of South Korea at the Crossroads and Negotiating on the Edge (the latter being one of the best books about North Korea’s diplomatic style), sees the general’s presence as “the first sign of an attempt to address substance alongside protocol.”
It is significant, in this respect, that during their two recent meetings, Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were both accompanied by intelligence chiefs—Kim by Gen. Kim, Moon by Suh Hoon. Snyder says that if Moon had brought along his national security adviser instead, then the subsequent channel with Washington would have been through Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton. Suh’s presence signaled Pompeo as the appropriate link, especially since the two have had a working relationship since Pompeo’s days as CIA director.
This connection—and the accelerated progress toward an actual summit—may signal a bureaucratic setback for Bolton, the Trump administration’s most virulent hawk. (Just before Trump hired him in March, Bolton had argued in the Wall Street Journal that a U.S. preventive first strike against North Korea was legal and necessary.) According to the Washington Post, Bolton called Trump at about 10 p.m. on May 23, read aloud a bellicose statement from North Korea’s top negotiator, and said that this was a very bad sign.
In fact, if Trump had consulted with anyone familiar with Pyongyang’s ways, he would have learned that the statement was, in style, par for the course and, in substance, a legitimate complaint about Bolton’s bluster. But Trump consulted with nobody and the next morning sent Kim a letter canceling the summit—without so much as notifying Pompeo.
In reaction, Moon—who had just returned from discussing the upcoming summit in Washington with a seemingly gung-ho Trump—held an emergency midnight cabinet meeting. The next day, Kim’s negotiator issued another statement, much more conciliatory in tone, expressing the hope that the summit could proceed. After that, Trump changed his mind, saying maybe the summit could happen after all. Pompeo simultaneously sent a negotiating team to Pyongyang and a logistical team to Singapore, where the summit was—and, now, still is—scheduled to take place.
What changed in Trump’s mind is not yet clear. Was it the change of tone in North Korea’s second statement? If so, it’s worth noting that Pyongyang’s position on substantive matters had not changed at all. From the moment that a summit was proposed, Kim and his aides have insisted that its goal would be “the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (not just of North Korea) in “phased and synchronous measures” (not all at once). This was, and is, the opposite of what the Trump administration has proposed. In fact, North Korea’s first, harshly toned statement—the one that threw Trump for a loop—was written in response to a remark by Bolton likening his vision of North Korean disarmament to that of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi (who was overthrown in a Western-backed coup and then killed, not long after he dismantled his nuclear program).
Trump’s decision to cancel his cancellation may have been driven more by Pompeo’s reassertion of authority. Pompeo is nearly as hawkish as Bolton when it comes to North Korea, but he is also the nation’s top diplomat and a fierce Trump loyalist. Trump wants diplomacy with North Korea, and so Pompeo is determined to give it to him. Pompeo is also determined to restore some of the State Department’s luster and influence after his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, practically wrecked the place—not necessarily because Pompeo is a keen advocate of diplomacy, but simply because he wants power (as most politicians do), and one way for a cabinet secretary to get it is to elevate the department that he runs, i.e., to elevate diplomacy.
Where all this leads, who knows? One thing nearly everyone now recognizes is that Kim is not going to give away his nukes—not anytime soon for any promise of economic aid, however lavish. This is true not only because it would take 15 years to accomplish (according to the calculations of Stanford physicist Siegfried Hecker, who knows as much about North Korean nukes as any Westerner), but—more to the point—because Kim’s nuclear arsenal is his only strategic asset: his only leverage for bargaining with other leaders and deterring them from attacking his regime.
With the pros taking over the process, one might now expect, or at least hope for, a less flamboyant agenda—a retreat from fantasies about world peace, a capitalist boom above the 38th parallel, or the triumph of laurels in Oslo.
Here are some plausible expectations of what might happen in Singapore: Trump and Kim agree on some lofty, distant goals; they announce a few dramatic, though not terribly sacrificial, short-term steps (the lifting of some minor sanctions, the destruction of a warhead or two); then they turn things over to the diplomats for the long haul. This may sound modest, but it would actually be quite significant. It might take war off the table (recall that, just nine months ago, some feared it was imminent), it could relax tensions, and it could establish a forum where a variety of disputes could be discussed.
The question is: Will Trump take this as a deal, or will he, in a fit of drama, demand more—or, in desperation, grovel for much less? In short, will Trump insist on being Trump? Will Bolton, whose desk is just steps away from the Oval Office, make his own power grab by abetting Trump’s stubbornness? Will this summit, such an unlikely event in the first place, smacked by such wild obstacles along the way, really happen? This presidency is never boring. The question is, will it turn deadly?