President Trump’s acceptance of a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un last week was a huge surprise for much of official Washington. It was almost as if Mr. Trump had decided to become a Democrat, or give up golf.
After all, Trump has derided Kim as “Little Rocket Man.” He’s threatened North Korea with “fire and fury.” The way in which the agreement came about seemed impetuous. Critics were quick to point out the many ways in which it might flop.
Flop it might. The North Koreans have said nothing yet about their view of the potential summit, or even if they’ve actually extended such an invitation. (South Korea is serving as the conduit between the sides.) The US insists that North Korean “denuclearization” is on the table. That’s a word that Washington and Pyongyang have interpreted very differently in the past.
But shock shouldn’t make the US blind to opportunity, according to some experts. There are ways in which a US-North Korean summit could go right. If nothing else, a face-to-face meeting is better than trading insults via Tweet and North Korean state media. Negotiations are better than war.
“We need to talk … to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to blunder. We’re on the edge of pretty grave dangers here,” said former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and former Democratic chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in an interview on Atlanta’s WABE broadcast Monday.
Meaning of denuclearization
As of now, it remains unclear whether, where, or even if the Trump-Kim summit will take place.
Over the weekend administration officials said that the North Koreans had already made a series of concessions in exchange for a possible meeting with Trump. According to the US, these are: a promise to end missile and nuclear testing for now; an agreement to refrain from criticizing upcoming US-South Korean military exercises; and, most importantly, a promised willingness to discuss giving up its existing nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons development program.
The North Korean regime has said “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” is on the table, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Sunday in a Fox News broadcast interview.
The pressure of Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions on North Korea is what has brought Pyongyang to the table, administration officials say. That is certainly possible. Many nuclear experts, however, doubt whether the North’s pledge to talk about “denuclearization” is exactly what the Trump administration believes it to be.
When North Korea talks about denuclearization, it’s meant to apply to the US as well as itself, indicating it is still suspicious that America maintains tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea – weapons the US withdrew in the early 1990s.
It also often links the nuclear issue with the presence of US troops on the Korean Peninsula. Withdrawal of troops has been a non-starter issue for US presidents for a generation, as it would leave South Korea open to North Korean conventional forces, which include massed artillery within range of Seoul.
What's in it for North Korea?
And why would Pyongyang now give up its nukes, after expending so much effort and so many scarce resources to obtain them? From the North Korean point of view, they are the nation’s best deterrent against a vastly more powerful United States that is committed to its destruction and has engaged in other regime changes around the world.
According to the analyst site Arms Control Wonk, North Korea is now building a national monument at the launch site of its ICBM test from last November, which indicated an ability to reach the continental US with a missile. That does not sound like a regime eager to trade away its nuclear program for economic aid.
“It is hard to see what the United States could offer that would make giving up their nuclear weapons even something worth thinking about,” says Mark Bell, a nuclear strategy expert and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.
That does not mean talks would be pointless, Bell adds. He says the US has interests in North Korea beyond denuclearization and much to gain from contacts with Pyongyang.
North Korea might be open to limits on its nuclear program, for instance, now that it appears to have reached a point where it is already a nascent nuclear power. It might agree to freeze its arsenal, or its testing regimen, in exchange for some mix of sanctions relief, limits on US military exercises, and perhaps an official peace treaty ending the Korean War.
The US might be able to negotiate a North Korean pledge to refrain from selling any surplus fissile material to dangerous groups abroad. A North Korea-US channel of communications similar to the Cold War hot line between the US and USSR could help prevent misunderstandings and accidental conflict.
Reducing risk of war
None of these things would “denuclearize” North Korea per se, but they would reduce the risk of a terrible war.
“To that extent they would be very valuable for the security of North Korea and the security of the United States,” says Dr. Bell.
However, to hear administration officials talk, right now the possible summit is all about a grand bargain that would sweep away North Korean nuclear weapons once and for all, with the lifting of sanctions the key US concession in the deal.
That may be a laudable goal, but as noted above, the chances of it actually happening are quite small. In that sense the impossible may get in the way of the achievable, according to Brookings Institution foreign policy fellow Ryan Hass.
“The risk of inflated expectations is that it will set the summit up for failure. If the summit becomes perceived as a failure, pressure will build in the United States to turn to brinkmanship and military options to achieve what diplomacy could not,” writes Mr. Hass in an analysis for Brookings’ Trump and Asia Watch series.