War Stories

Is the Singapore Summit Already Doomed to Fail?

Two of America’s top North Korea experts paint a bleak picture of the Trump–Kim meeting’s prospects.

General view of the Fullerton Hotel on Monday in Singapore.
General view of the Fullerton Hotel on Monday in Singapore. Ore Huiying/Getty Images

Two of the nation’s top experts on North Korea testified before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday, and if what they said holds water, the upcoming summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un is likely to be either grim or inconsequential.

One of the witnesses, Victor Cha, was President George W. Bush’s top adviser on North Korea and, several months ago, Trump’s presumptive nominee for ambassador to South Korea. He was dropped after he criticized the idea—then prevalent within Trump’s White House—of launching a pre-emptive military strike against Kim’s regime.

The other witness, Joseph Yun, a 30-year veteran of the foreign service, was the State Department’s point of contact in back-channel talks with North Korean officials until he resigned this past February, after those talks were sidelined.

Both former officials said the summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, would be a success only if Kim agreed to dismantle his entire nuclear-weapons apparatus over some specified period of time—and if, in the meantime, he presented a comprehensive list of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, missiles, fissile material, labs, and other facilities, and allowed international inspectors to verify his claim. They stressed that this itemization should be the first step, and that the United States shouldn’t be obligated to take any measures in exchange—lifting sanctions or offering security guarantees—until the verification process begins. As Yun put it, “Without knowing what they have, how are we going to negotiate?”

However, the two witnesses also said they very much doubted that Kim would agree to do any of those things. Kim’s whole “national narrative,” Cha said, is based on an image of strength, a claim that the American president is meeting with him because North Korea is now a nuclear power. The idea that Kim would give up the basis of his strength at the summit “goes against that narrative.” Cha also said that given the nature of North Korea’s regime, Kim will “always feel insecure” and will therefore never give up his nukes entirely.

Yun agreed that there is “no sign” that Kim wants to disarm, but said it was still worth pushing him in a direction where he feels less insecure and more likely to disarm eventually, since the alternative—war—“is not an option.”

If Kim were to surprise everyone by pledging to disarm, providing a firm timetable, and opening doors to outside inspectors, the two former officials said, Trump would have to respond in kind with specific and far-reaching security guarantees. Kim, after all, has built a nuclear arsenal in order to deter an enemy attack and thus ensure his regime’s survival. However, Yun, apparently speaking from experience, said the Trump administration is “uncomfortable” about discussing exactly what guarantees it would provide in return for such extravagant gestures.

The more likely scenario, the officials said, is that Trump will relax his demand of complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament—or CVID, as the official parlance has it—just to get some kind of deal. Yun said it’s good news that in recent weeks, Trump has become more realistic about the summit’s prospects, seeing arms control as a “process” that unfolds over time—similar to Kim’s idea of “phased and synchronous measures,” rather than national security adviser John Bolton’s demand for a “big bang,” in which North Korea surrenders all its nukes immediately. However, Yun and Cha insisted complete disarmament must remain the ultimate goal.

Meanwhile, U.S. and North Korean officials who are preparing for the summit have yet to agree on the most basic principles. Kim has long insisted that the goal of any deal must be the “de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Trump and his aides have taken to reciting the same phrase, but they see it as starting with North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. By contrast, Kim and his aides define the term as demanding that all countries with a military presence on the peninsula—very much including the United States—withdraw all forces that have the capability to carry nuclear arms and, in some versions, that they withdraw all forces that could threaten North Korea’s regime, compelling it to possess nuclear weapons.

There are also disputes over the meaning of a peace treaty to end the Korean War, which settled in an armistice but not a formal peace in 1953. Trump has declared this as a goal of the summit on several occasions. Yun noted at the Senate hearing that signing a peace treaty would mean taking all military options off the table. And although he didn’t say so, the North Koreans see that as involving the total withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and the cessation of joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises. This has been the dream of North Korean leaders for decades.

No common definition has been reached on these basic concepts—the building blocks of any deal—despite two meetings between Kim and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one meeting between Trump and Gen. Kim Yong-chol, Kim’s top spy, and several sessions between mid-level officials on both sides.

In the past couple weeks, a small number of experienced U.S. officials have joined the process, not least Sung Kim, the ambassador to the Philippines, who was tasked by Pompeo to lead the team planning the summit—this after months of leaderless drift. However, at Tuesday’s hearing, Cha raised another concern: that the North Korean team consists of the same people who have been manning these sorts of negotiations for the past 30 years. The U.S. team has to “understand the history of the negotiations,” he said, or else they might be prone to see old proposals, with hidden loopholes, as something new and exciting.

Finally, though neither Cha nor Yun said so explicitly, they implied that the summit itself has already boosted Kim’s standing and reduced Trump’s leverage, especially if its outcome falls short of the most optimistic goals. Kim, who was one of the most isolated leaders just a few months ago, has now had two meetings each with the Chinese and South Korean presidents, two with Pompeo, one coming up with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (another story entirely, given their past joint ventures on military programs and nuclear reactors), and an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet with him—all this before the summit with Trump, and all this before meeting with Trump.

Furthermore, even before the summit, China and South Korea have started to relax sanctions against North Korea, which, until talk of the summit began, had been tightening—and Pyongyang had begun to feel the pain. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will almost certainly loosen sanctions further in the coming months, Cha and Yun said, if only to build on the growing harmony with his neighbor to the north. China, which had long been alienated from North Korea, is more engaged as well for economic and geostrategic reasons. If, say, in the wake of a failed summit Trump wanted to re-impose “maximum pressure,” he would have a hard time getting others to go along with it.

Finally, the military option is also a gambit that Trump will no longer be able to play, at least not as long as Kim can keep up his charm offensive and hold off on resuming nuclear and missile tests. In short, Trump has lost whatever upper hand he once held. He has signaled to Kim, his negotiators, U.S. allies, and the rest of the world that he wants—he needs—some kind, any kind, of deal.

Cha quoted Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, as noting that a negotiator can’t appear to want a deal more than the adversary—then suggested that Trump is violating his own cardinal rule.