With less than one week to go before the first-ever encounter between an American president and a North Korean leader, there is all manner of speculation about whether the historic Trump-Kim summit can deliver even more meaningful firsts: Voluntary abandonment of nuclear knowhow by a relatively weak and vulnerable state, despite decades of efforts cultivating such a capability, and the melting of “the last glacier” of the cold war — that is, the frozen Korean conflict.
The opening positions of both the United States and North Korea are long-standing, well-known, and seemingly non-convergent.
The US must hold to its demand for comprehensive denuclearization of North Korea to uphold the validity of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), deny North Korea the ability to use the nuclear threat to intimidate South Korean and Japanese allies, and eliminate risks of nuclear proliferation to other bad actors.
North Korea seeks a deterrent against more powerful adversaries to guarantee its regime survival and to establish mutual nuclear vulnerability with the United States — unless the United States abandons its “hostile policy” toward North Korea and engages in mutual nuclear arms reductions — as well as to improve its strategic position and standing as a normal and “responsible nuclear state.”
But because the realization of a US-North Korea meeting has been so unexpected, unprecedented, and personalized, it will provide a unique opportunity for both sides to test their assumptions about the intentions and motivations of the other.
Answers to the following questions can help to assess the likelihood of success or failure of the Trump-Kim summit:
1. Can North Korea accept and reciprocate Trump’s gesture of reconciliation?
North Korea has a reputation for pocketing rather than reciprocating unilateral concessions.
By giving Kim the respect that comes with interaction on an “equal footing,” Trump has front-loaded symbolic expressions of his intent to improve relations, end the Korean war, and reduce military tensions on the peninsula — presumably in return for North Korea to indicate their intent to denuclearize. Will Kim Jong Un reciprocate, and if so, how?
2. Will Kim Jong Un finally choose between nukes and economic development?
As part of his consolidation of power, Kim Jong Un established a policy of simultaneous pursuit of nuclear and economic development.
Subsequently, North Korea announced a series of domestic special economic zones, while also ramping up missile testing to over twenty tests per year in 2016 and 2017.
As of April of 2018, the country’s party line has been amended to focus primarily on economic development on the rationale that North Korea has achieved its nuclear goals. But without additional North Korean cooperation and involvement in implementing a denuclearization process, it’s too soon to say that the country has abandoned nuclear efforts.
3. Will Trump end up tacitly accepting a nuclear North Korea?
A delicate aspect of the Trump-Kim summit is that the United States is meeting with a de facto nuclear state that desires détente without denuclearization, while the US wants détente in exchange for denuclearization.
There is a risk that leaning too heavily into an attempt to end the Korean war and replace it with a permanent peace might change the relationship without addressing the underlying risk that accompanies a nuclear North Korea.
Without defining, in detail, a mutual “action for action” process, the United States could change the window dressing around the threat — without getting at the root of the threat itself.
4. Will Trump offer or accept a reduced US commitment to the defense of South Korea?
Bringing the Korean War to an end could call into question the purpose and level of American forces needed on the Korean peninsula to meet its security commitments to South Korea.
Trump has already indicated that he expects allies not to be free-riders when it comes to footing security bills. As reiterated by Defense Secretary Mattis at the Shangri-la Dialogue, this is ultimately an alliance issue the United States and the Republic of Korea should manage separately from negotiations with North Korea.
At the same time, though, reduced tensions will justify tangible force withdrawals if the inter-Korean border is truly to become demilitarized. As part of this process, it would be reasonable to negotiate with Seoul — not Pyongyang.
5. What role should China play in facilitating peace and denuclearization?
Since Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech, which marked North Korea’s turn toward diplomacy, China has more often than not stood on the outside, looking in. Xi Jinping is a partner of Trump’s in sanctions implementation, but China’s role in peacebuilding has not yet been clearly defined, and it is making Beijing nervous.
The Korean conflict is multi-sided, with peninsular, global (nuclear), and regional dimensions, and all sides must move in tandem if a real resolution is to be achieved.
6. What will happen if the summit fails?
Some analysts suggest that, rather than lead to a US-North Korea confrontation, a failed summit will result in renewed diplomatic efforts by South Korea — and possibly others — to restore stability and maintain North Korean restraint, so as to avoid the prospect of renewed escalation of military conflict.
Less than two days after Trump initially cancelled his plans to meet with Kim Jong Un, the second inter-Korean summit was held on May 26, which shows the two Korean leaders are able act together, and limit the prospects of the US considering preventive military action.
In the event of a Trump-Kim summit failure, the result may be to enhance North Korean dependency on Seoul and Beijing as safety valves against the prospect of renewal of US-North Korea confrontation. This circumstance in and of itself provides a new buffer against the prospect of military escalation in Korea that was not present at the end of 2017.
Scott Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.