War Stories

Showdown in Singapore

The best, and worst, we can expect when Trump sits down with Kim.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters, KCNA via Reuters.

President Trump will hold his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this Tuesday, and all signs suggest he’s done little to prepare for the occasion. Worse still, he thinks he’s totally prepared; he doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know, and that’s the most dangerous form of overconfidence.

The clue came just before Trump’s meeting on Thursday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who rushed to Washington for the second time in as many months to make sure the American president doesn’t give away the store when he sits down with Kim on June 12 in Singapore.

When a reporter asked Trump if he was prepared for the summit with Kim, he replied, “I think I’m very well prepared. I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about the attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done. But I think I’ve been preparing for the summit for a long time.”

Each sentence in this remark reveals a man out of his depth.

“I think I’m very well prepared.” In fact, the National Security Council has held no Cabinet-level meetings on the summit. Every other president since World War II has regarded such meetings—which take into account the views and interests of the Departments of Defense, State, Treasury, the intelligence agencies, and so forth—as vital in hashing out an informed, coherent U.S. position on matters of high policy. A lengthy briefing had been planned for Trump during his stay at Camp David last weekend. The president called it off at the last minute.

“I don’t think I have to prepare very much.” If Trump believes this, he isn’t prepared at all. If he and Kim really are going to discuss the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as he and his aides have said, there is a lot to prepare for, not least just what each of those words—complete, verifiable, and so forth—means and what their implementation involves. A group of midlevel U.S. and North Korean diplomats have been discussing these issues for days now, and their progress has reportedly been glacial. If Trump and Kim are to break the impasse, as leaders tend to do in these circumstances, Trump has to know the issues. Kim certainly does.

“It’s about the attitude” No, it isn’t. Attitude and willingness are the premises of a summit; there wouldn’t be one otherwise. But to accomplish anything requires integrating intelligence, tactics, strategy, and policy. There’s no sign that Trump or anyone around him has done this.

“It’s about willingness to get things done.” No, it isn’t. More important is having a clear sense of precisely what “things” he should want to get done, seeing how those things match up with what the North Koreans want, and whether he should or should not fudge the difference.

“I think I’ve been preparing for the summit for a long time.” Here is yet another sign that Trump, the real estate tycoon turned president, believes there is fundamentally no difference between negotiating with an international leader and haggling with the New York Buildings Department. Negotiating with North Korea is a more rarefied matter still. Kim’s father and grandfather, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, the nation’s two previous leaders, developed a distinct bargaining style; while the latest Kim has his own quirks, he has inherited the same crew of negotiators. The style seems crazy by conventional measures, but there is a pattern to the swerves, switcheroos, and outright betrayals that animate a typical session with North Koreans. To deal with the pattern—to know when to sit calmly, insist sternly, or walk out—you have to recognize the pattern. Does Trump? Do the members of his team? This is a very different sort of chess match from the scenarios laid out in The Art of the Deal.

None of this might matter much in a routine bout of diplomacy, but Tuesday’s summit is something new under the sun. It marks the first time a North Korean leader has met with a sitting American president. It comes just months after North Korea declared itself to be a nuclear weapons state. Finally, it comes amid extraordinary turmoil in America’s relations with its allies, which a normal president would be consulting and soothing—knowing that a unified effort will be needed in the summit’s aftermath, however it turns out. Yet Trump has been picking fights with our most stalwart friends in Europe and Asia, over trade, security, the environment, and the survival of democracy itself. He has lately had warmer words for Kim than for the freely elected leaders of Canada, Germany, Britain, or France—who will be watching how Trump keeps his word to Asian allies as a clue of whether he cares a whit about U.S. commitments to them. (His hostile comments leading up to the G-7 summit this weekend in Quebec, which he’ll drop in on before heading on to Singapore, are cause for pessimism.) A lot rides on what happens in the coming days.

So why is this summit happening? What do Trump and Kim hope to get from it?

Trump believes Kim is coming to the table under the pressure of U.S. military threats and economic sanctions. Kim believes Trump is coming to the table because North Korea now has a nuclear arsenal. They both might be right to some degree, but if each one thinks he is coming to the talks in a position of strength, they’ll have a hard time finding common ground. To put the matter more starkly: Trump wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons; Kim wants Trump and the rest of the world to accept North Korea as a nuclear power.

There’s something else that Trump clearly wants from this: the spectacle of triumph. Several close observers of the summit’s preparation say Trump doesn’t care about the details of what his underlings are negotiating, doesn’t care that they’re having trouble coming to a common definition of denuclearization. He just wants a deal—in part to get a deal for its own sake, in part to come off like a historic figure, and, through that refashioned image, to stave off political pressures back home. (He has tweeted on the “irony” of his flying off to make world peace with Kim while Democrats and the deep state continue their “witch hunt” for collusion.)

Trump has softened some of his positions going into the talks. He dropped the condition, advanced by national security adviser John Bolton, that North Korea must get rid of its nukes in one big swoop before the United States grants any economic aid or security guarantees. Trump has now said a few times that the accord, if there is one, will be a “process” and that he’s fine with the North Koreans’ demand for “phased and synchronous measures.” With that shift, Trump adopted a more realistic, less rigid stance.

However, Trump also said he would no longer use the term maximum pressure to describe U.S. sanctions policy against North Korea. And on Thursday, officials said he was ready to sign a peace treaty ending the Korean War. (Since 1953, all the combatants have been observing an armistice but are still technically at war.)

These are extraordinary concessions to make before the summit even gets underway—and before North Korea has done anything other than suspending (not necessarily ending) tests of missiles and nuclear weapons. The end of “maximum pressure”—along with the fact of the summit itself—has already moved China and South Korea to relax their sanctions. A peace treaty, as North Koreans define it, would involve the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from South Korea and the end of joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises. Why are Americans still here, the North will ask, if we are now at peace? If the summit does go in this direction, Trump and his overseers should be very careful with the joint declaration’s language.

How Likely Is Success?

It depends how success is defined. If the measure of success is that North Korea agrees to “complete, verified, irreversible denuclearization,” that would be stunning—but also extremely unlikely. Trump seems to think he can get Kim to disarm in exchange for promises of massive Western aid and investment, but it’s not clear that Kim wants the risks to his absolute rule that westernization would likely entail. Kim has allowed a certain measure of economic reform in recent years, but he can sustain that through re-energizing trade with China and South Korea.

What Kim really wants is security guarantees—which is to say, he wants the U.S. military out of his neighborhood. At some point, a U.S. withdrawal might be appropriate—but not until North Korea gets rid of its nuclear weapons, demobilizes its conventional military forces, and dismantles its artillery rockets or at least moves them away from the border with South Korea. Even then, the withdrawal should be coordinated with U.S. allies in the region.

Japan’s leaders are worried that Trump, in his eagerness for a deal (any deal), will move to withdraw troops prematurely. Trump clearly has little understanding of what alliances are about, seeing them as extortion schemes—he has frequently hammered South Korea, Japan, and the Europeans for spending too little on defense and sucking us dry with “unfair” trade agreements—rather than as instruments of mutual benefit.

It’s a delicate balance, coming up with a deal that takes down North Korean nukes without shattering the alliance that has maintained stability and U.S. interests in the region. It might have been better if the idea of this summit had never come up. But it did, it’s happening, and, among the more realistic scenarios, the best one is that not much comes of it.

Some U.S. and allied officials hope that Trump can be persuaded to settle for a modest standard of success. This might be a joint declaration of lofty, long-term goals (denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, normalized relations, the end of the war), accompanied by a few immediate tangible gestures (an outright ban of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, a prohibition of nuclear-capable U.S. aircraft in regional military exercises, the establishment of consulates in Washington and Pyongyang). Then the two sides can set up a forum where the diplomats can work out the details and discuss a variety of related issues.

This would be modest but substantive, truly historic, and, more to the point, achievable. The question is, would it be enough? Would it be enough for Trump, who craves something more monumental? (He has talked wistfully of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.) Would it be enough for allies, especially Japan, who want to crush Kim’s nuclear ambitions more decisively and keep his regime isolated?

Finally, whatever happens, political and bureaucratic skullduggery will continue to consume Washington. Bolton, who has publicly advocated a preventive first strike against Kim’s regime, tried to sabotage the summit from his first days in the White House; he will press unrealistic demands while in Singapore, and afterward, just steps away from the Oval Office, he will continue trying to block whatever commitments Trump signs on to making. At the same time, congressional leaders from both parties are demanding that Trump not lift any sanctions—which were imposed by U.S. law—until North Korea gets rid of all its nuclear weapons. (In this sense, Bolton and Congress might serve as a brake to any impulse Trump might have to give away the store.)

As Trump has learned to say, this is a “process.” It will go on for a long time. It would be best if North Korea could be put on the back burner. It’s such a small, miserable country; Kim is such a horrid tyrant; and yes, he has a small nuclear arsenal, but we could annihilate the place in the extremely unlikely event that Kim dare attack the United States or its allies. But the Kim dynasty’s strategy has always been to kick up a fuss, be noticed, aspire to the status of a peer to global powers, and play its stronger, richer neighbors off one another—all for the goal of survival. Trump has helped open the door for Kim’s maneuverings. The task, after the summit, will be to keep the peace while keeping the door from flying wide open.