DENVER – Since the April 27 summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, U.S. President Donald Trump has sought, unsurprisingly, to portray himself as the mastermind behind inter-Korean diplomacy. But, despite the rays of hope emanating from the peninsula, Trump may come to regret having taken center stage, especially as his own summit with Kim draws closer.
In preparation for that event — now tentatively scheduled for late May or early June — Trump will likely eschew reading or listening to expert advice and will allow himself to be buffeted by conflicting information. After all, he is reportedly unable to absorb comprehensive, organized policy briefings and his opinions tend to reflect those of whomever he spoke to last. Beyond that, he is generally guided by a sense of indignation against his predecessors, especially President Barack Obama, for having been too gullible or unfocused to solve the problem at hand.
But the emotional Moon-Kim meeting in Panmunjom, the “peace village” on the border between the two Koreas, poses an enormous challenge for Trump, who wants a big, showy display of his own deal-making magic so that he can tell the world, “Now you see the crisis; now you don’t.” Unfortunately, North Korea’s desire for nuclear weapons cannot simply be conjured away.
At best, a Trump-Kim summit will produce more vague formulations of what might be possible through further talks. For a preview of just how vague and imprecise such diplomatic pronouncements can be, consider Moon and Kim’s joint statement from their bilateral summit, in which they claim to share the dream of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
Most likely, Kim will offer Trump assurances that sound even more encouraging than what he offered Moon — but not by much. Specifically, the North Koreans will argue that their nuclear arsenal is for self-defense — a logical response to decades of supposed U.S. enmity. They will frame Trump’s willingness to meet Kim as a welcome first step along the road to denuclearization; and they will return the gesture with some corresponding concession, such as a freeze on testing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.
But on the question of whether North Korea will return to the status of a non-nuclear state and rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Kim will demur. That, the North’s leaders will say, would take much longer and would require more step-by-step measures by the U.S. and its regional allies to remove “mistrust” — a favorite North Korean concern.
Trump, for his part, will not take well to anything that is “step by step,” so he will seek shortcuts to achieving something that resembles his stated objective. Given that he has criticized America’s forward bases in the past, he may suggest a dramatic gesture to show that the U.S. has no intention of using its troops in South Korea against the North. Kim, no doubt, will be interested and he might even agree to shake hands on something along the lines of “denuclearization” in exchange for U.S. troop withdrawals. But he will still plead for more time.
Trump could also raise the issue of U.S. citizens who are currently incarcerated in North Korean prisons. To this, Kim will probably respond that securing any prisoner’s release is difficult, given North Korea’s “independent” judiciary; but he will present himself as a humanitarian willing to do what he can to help. And he might even express sorrow for Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was released from North Korean custody in a coma last year, never regained consciousness and died shortly thereafter. He will not, however, take any responsibility for the beatings Warmbier apparently endured.
The Trump-Kim summit will have warm atmospherics. Kim will probably regale Trump with his plans for economic development and his goal of making North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, a world-class city with — you guessed it — a world-class hotel. More to the point, he will explain the logic of why sanctions must be suspended before he can even start to lay the groundwork for denuclearization.
Trump will need more than that in order to claim success. One possibility is that he will confront Kim on North Korea’s fluid definition of “denuclearization.” Even with no agreement on a timetable, Kim might at least have to acknowledge that denuclearization means the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of his country’s nuclear-weapons program.
At any rate, to prove that he is not being played “like a fiddle,” Trump will need to carry out several tasks simultaneously. For the sake of public opinion in South Korea, he will have to chart a course between upholding the spirit of the inter-Korean summit and not giving in on sanctions relief. He also must not do anything to weaken the U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan, which will require him to maintain close contact with both Moon and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe throughout the process, lest either leader feels ignored or undermined.
Moreover, he will need to keep all alternatives on the table, even though military options are becoming less tenable in the context of inter-Korean dialogue. Most important, he will need to get the North Korean regime at least to acknowledge that genuine denuclearization is the goal and to agree to a process for continued dialogue, perhaps culminating in another summit.
Whatever the outcome, Trump would do well to ask himself if it is any better than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which he has described as “the worst deal ever.” Then again, persuading Trump to engage in self-reflection could prove to be the toughest challenge yet.
Christopher R. Hill, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is chief adviser to the chancellor for global engagement and a professor of the practice in diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of “Outpost.” ©Project Syndicate, 2018 www.project-syndicate.org