It’s been a roller-coaster ride. On May 24, U.S. President Donald Trump canceled his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un citing the latter’s “open hostility.” Hours later, Kim had his diplomat express his willingness to talk, had a surprise meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and then sent one of his closest aides, Kim Yong Chol, to New York and Washington to deliver his personal letter to Trump in an extraordinarily big envelop. Trump accepted it as a positive sign and decided to meet Kim as originally scheduled in Singapore on June 12.
There is a big difference before and after this roller-coaster ride. Trump no longer expects an immediate denuclearization of North Korea. He says the June 12 meeting will be about building a relationship, indicating that the denuclearization takes time, and does not want to use the term “maximum pressure” as he and Kim go along. In some sense, Trump has come down to a realistic startling line. The denuclearization process is complex, time-consuming and expensive, therefore needs to take “gradual and synchronous measures” as Kim expects. Even in the case of Libya, which never succeeded in developing nuclear arsenal, it took almost two years from initial negotiation to the essential denuclearization. The denuclearization of an actual nuclear weapon-state like North Korea cannot be completed in Trump’s first term.
But Trump has missed opportunities to take a position of strength. Trump seems to think he has given up nothing for having the first meeting between a sitting president of the United States and a North Korean leader. He may even think he got the three Americans back for free. But he should not have thanked Kim for freeing them. Instead Trump should have demanded an apology and compensation for the fate of Otto Warmbier, who last year was released in a state of unconsciousness and soon died. Trump could demand the settlement of North Korea’s past breaking of promises, in addition to the pledge for denuclearization, as a condition for holding the summit, but he didn’t. He didn’t even raise human rights issues with Kim Yong Chol.
On the other hand, Kim Jong Un has already been rewarded greatly by the upcoming summit. First, Trump is acknowledging Kim as an equal by meeting him without preconditions. North Korea describes itself as a “responsible nuclear weapon-state” and shows a willingness to work for nuclear arms reduction and nonproliferation. In fact, Trump is welcoming North Korea, a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) defector, to the nuclear club now that Kim does not have to immediately pledge the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of his country. Kim has pledged the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping and may do so with Trump on June 12, but, as North Korea has repeatedly stated, he will give up all his nuclear weapons only when other members of the nuclear club do so.
Furthermore, on June 12, Kim will seek the complete, verifiable, and irreversible guarantee (CVIG) of his regime in return for the denuclearization pledge. He demands Seoul and Washington to reciprocate with “goodwill” and create an “atmosphere of peace and stability” for denuclearization. Perhaps Kim wants a peace regime by transforming the armistice into a peace treaty, by breaking the U.S. extended deterrence over South Korea, and demanding a lifting of sanctions, and economic and technological aid. Kim may not be reassured unless the U.S. forward-deployed forces in Japan and even Guam depart. In fact, North Korean state media criticized South Korea’s participation in the RIMPAC multilateral naval exercise off Guam, naming it “a product of the Cold War era.” Kim may demand more and more.
CVID is now a remote possibility. What Trump can expect is arms control at most. Kim may agree to hand over incomplete capabilities such as intercontinental ballistic missiles or submarine-launch ballistic missiles as Trump takes measures for CVIG. Kim may also agree to limit the number of deployable shorter range nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, as the U.S. scales down its military exercise with South Korea, and shrinks its military footprint on and around the Korean Peninsula. Trump, who has cast doubt on the cost-effectiveness of U.S. Forces Korea, may agree with Kim on their withdrawal anyway.
In a 2007 interview with CNN, Trump stated that the United States needs a “negotiator” who can negotiate with a dictator. Asked if he could be one, Trump answered, “Yes, I could do a very good job” in world politics. But according to negotiation expert Marty Latz, author of an upcoming book “The Real Trump Deal: An Eye-Opening Look at How He Really Negotiates,” Trump was never a good negotiator in business and has not been one as president to date. Latz argues that negotiation skills such as assertiveness, empathy, creativity, ethicality are “not necessarily in the DNA of Donald Trump.”
How can an unsuccessful negotiator seal a nuclear deal with a shrewd dictator? In fact, Trump as president is a deal-breaker — from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Paris climate change accord, and more recently the Iranian nuclear agreement. Trump has not made any substantial diplomatic deal since inauguration.
So is the game over? Is Kim going his own way? Trump said that if Kim is not serious about denuclearization, he will leave the table and continue to exert maximum pressure. Trump should do that if he finds Kim not serious. Trump should listen to U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton on this without thinking of the mid-term elections, “Russia-gate,” or a Nobel prize. Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow will no longer join the maximus pressure campaign, but Tokyo, London, Paris, Canberra and many others will. An NPT defector should not be welcomed to the nuclear club. It’s not too late to convince North Korea that nuclear weapons will make its future anything but safe.
Tetsuo Kotani is an associate professor of international relations at Meikai University and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. He covers Japanese security policy and the Japan-U.S. alliance.