President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will hold another summit, perhaps as soon as October. What could go wrong? Almost everything.
At their June meeting in Singapore, the two signed a “joint statement,” pledging “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a formula even vaguer than it sounds, which Trump took as a diplomatic triumph and the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
We learned soon after that, in their one-on-one session before the two sides’ delegations met, Trump also agreed to suspend joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises (calling them “provocative,” as Kim routinely does, and “expensive”) and to draft a peace treaty, possibly to be signed at their next meeting, ending the Korean War, which settled into a stalemate and cease-fire in 1953 but was never formally finished.
This may seem like a triumph indeed (who could object to peace in one of the world’s jumpiest hot spots?), and Trump is keen to claim it—to be heralded as a global peacemaker—before the midterm elections. Kim, who has learned how to push all of Trump’s buttons, is abetting this desire, writing him a “very warm, very positive” letter (as White House press secretary Sarah Sanders Huckabee characterized it) and saying that he wants to achieve total denuclearization by the end of Trump’s first term.
But a peace treaty (or “peace declaration,” if Trump didn’t want to submit it to the Senate for ratification) wouldn’t necessarily promote peace and could mean the end of all leverage against Pyongyang. Michael Green, professor at Georgetown and director of the National Security Council’s Asia desk during the Bush administration, told me, “The most important and sweeping sanctions against North Korea are the Trading With the Enemy Act Sanctions.” With a peace treaty, “North Korea (and probably China and Russia) would argue these are no longer necessary.”
Similarly, Kim and his allies—and possibly South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is eager to promote economic development in the north—would also likely argue that America’s continued military presence on the peninsula would violate the treaty and that, if the troops weren’t pulled out, North Korea would abrogate the deal. In other words, North Korea could get everything the Kim dynasty has been dreaming of for decades—in exchange for which the current scion is obliged to do nothing.
Many U.S. officials working on the Korea problem fear that Trump will grab whatever peace deal Kim dangles before him—however vaguely the terms are defined and whatever conditions are attached—for the sake of electoral gain.
In his private session with Kim three months ago, Trump also agreed to proceed toward negotiations on North Korea’s terms—that is, in “phased synchronous measures”—rather than demanding, as he previously had, that Kim get rid of all his nukes at once. In principle, this was a good move. The demand for a “big bang,” all-at-once disarmament agreement (as Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton put it) was always a nonstarter: No leader would give up his most vital assets without getting something in return beforehand. But before making this concession, Trump should have worked out precisely what step-by-step measures he wanted Kim to make and what steps the United States would take in return. Since June, the North Korean negotiators (a canny bunch who have been doing this for decades) have stalled follow-on talks, claiming that they’ve already taken their steps: They’ve halted the testing of missiles and nuclear weapons, returned remains of dead prisoners of war (or what they say are the remains are of dead POWs), and blown up the entrance (but no other portal) of a missile-engine test site. They now say they won’t do anything else until after the United States signs a peace treaty.
Previous administrations have viewed a peace treaty, and normalization of relations, as the final phase of any talks with Pyongyang—the ultimate reward to hold out. Trump might say that his predecessors were wrong, but certainly one precondition for the ultimate prize should be that the North Koreans at least declare how much nuclear material they possess—how many missiles, how many finished warheads, how much plutonium and highly enriched uranium—and where the sites are located, so inspectors can verify the dismantling.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had hoped that Kim’s team would present an itemized list of their nuclear facilities at the June summit. But they haven’t done, or pledged to do, even that. There is no way to gauge how much the North Koreans disarm without knowing how many arms they have in the first place.
In fact, according to U.S. intelligence, North Korea has expanded its missile production since the June summit. Kim did hold his annual military parade without rolling out any intercontinental ballistic missiles. This can properly be seen as a gesture to Trump, but it doesn’t remotely mean—contrary to Trump’s rejoicing—that they’re moving toward denuclearization. It could mean simply that Kim now views North Korea as a nuclear power and therefore doesn’t need to show off his wares.
In 2012, North Korea updated its constitution to declare itself a “nuclear-armed state.” The fact is frequently touted, for domestic and foreign consumption, as Kim’s glorious accomplishment. His summit with the president of the United States—the placement of North Korea on the same stage with the most powerful country on Earth and, until recently, its most powerful foe—is seen (correctly) as a direct result of this achievement. Kim is not going to get rid of his nuclear weapons, nor would any North Korean leader. And Kim knows that, as long as he keeps sending Trump “warm letters,” the United States won’t pressure him to do so. In July, Trump even said Kim could take as long as he wanted to disarm. “We have no time limit,” he said.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, talk is better than war, and there are ways the Trump administration could maneuver these talks to a good-enough outcome. The first step would be to accept the fact that North Korea is not going to surrender all of its nuclear weapons. The second step would be to take advantage of the fact that, while the North Koreans have some nuclear weapons (U.S. intelligence estimates range between 30 and 60), this amounts to a small arsenal; there is no evidence that they’ve yet succeeded at placing a nuclear warhead on top of a missile; and they haven’t tested their long-range missile enough times to regard it as a first-strike weapon. At best, they have enough weapons to deter an American first strike; and as long as we assure them that we have no intention to launch a first strike, maybe we can hold them in place.
Another way of making the point is this: If the talks go on and on and on, with no progress, no steps toward disarmament, but the North Koreans do not resume testing (a move that could easily be detected), that would be fine. But sanctions should continue, though they could be relaxed if Kim does make moves toward disarmament. And while the United States might at some point set up an “interests office” in Pyongyang, it should not offer full diplomatic recognition until Kim makes genuine moves. Human rights, of which Kim is one of the world’s most atrocious offenders, might also be put on the table.
This modest, realistic course of action can be pursued, though, only if relations—and expectations—are kept in a low key. A grand state visit, with the pomp and ceremony of big-power summitry, will only elevate Kim’s status and legitimacy, at no cost to him. But here we come back to the problem: Trump is interested in a peace treaty with Kim, phony or otherwise, only because of its pomp and ceremony—its poll-pushing optics.
Trump seems to think—he may genuinely believe—that Kim is his friend and that personal friendship is the only basis for international deals. He seems to think that the talks are stalled because the bureaucrats on his negotiating team don’t know how to make deals. As he has claimed on many other matters, only he can fix this. Last week, after Kim was reported to proclaim “unwavering faith in President Trump,” Trump tweeted, “Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!”
But what is the “it” that Trump thinks they’ll get done? What does he want these talks, and this summit, to accomplish? There have reportedly been no senior National Security Council meetings on the subject. (Any previous president would have held several by now.) Has Trump discussed the question of what’s in our interests, and what’s feasible, with anybody who knows anything about the subject?
Doubtful, and this is why many officials in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, and elsewhere are nervous about the idea of another summit. They don’t know what the boss will do or say; they don’t know what he’ll give up. He understands next to nothing about the issues; he has fallen full-bore for Kim’s bromance ploy; and he still thinks he should get the Nobel Peace Prize for simply sitting down with the tyrant he once derided as Little Rocket Man. He’s drinking a toxic, nerve-racking brew.