In the roller-coaster ride that is U.S. diplomacy under President Donald Trump, the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is back on schedule: The two men will meet Tuesday in Singapore. While diplomacy is always to be preferred to threats and war, successful diplomacy demands planning, patience, an understanding of the party across the table and a keen appreciation of all equities involved. Pyongyang has been planning for decades for this encounter: By all appearances, Washington is scrambling. As the two men meet, it is critical to remember: No deal is better than a bad one.
Trump shocked the world when he agreed to sit down with Kim, a meeting that North Korean leaders had sought for years and had been denied. The impetuousness and risks inherent in that decision became clear as the summit date approached and doubts mounted about North Korea’s commitment to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID). Just two weeks ago, Trump canceled the summit, citing North Korean statements that attacked U.S. officials and showed “tremendous anger and great hostility.”
Fearful of losing the opportunity to meet the U.S. president, North Korea responded with restraint and dispatched a senior envoy, Kim Yong Chol, to meet with Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to salvage the summit. After two days of talks, and the presentation to the president of an oversized letter from Kim Jong Un, Trump agreed to proceed as planned. Now the world waits to see what will transpire next week in Singapore.
The most important issue at this meeting is Kim’s readiness to put his nuclear program on the table. He must agree to honor previous commitments and eliminate his nuclear arsenal. It may — and likely will — take years to complete this process, but he must make a pledge to do so, agree to a program that makes that promise verifiable and make a show of good faith to prove his sincerity.
Despite high-flying rhetoric and some publicity stunts, he has not yet done so. Kim has made great progress toward critical national goals without making any sacrifices. He will get his meeting with Trump. He has fractured the international coalition that imposed “maximum pressure” and pushed Pyongyang to the table. And he is forcing the United States to soften its positions across the board. The U.S. is no longer talking about CVID and Trump has said that he will no longer use the phrase “maximum pressure.” Agreeing to meet Kim Yong Chol required waiving sanctions (as did South Korean meetings with him in the run-up to the Winter Olympic Games, the initial steps in the diplomatic charm offensive that North Korea launched this year).
North Korea has halted its nuclear and missile tests — no great sacrifice if Pyongyang was telling the truth last year when it said it had reached its objectives — and blew up its testing site in front of reporters — another questionable concession if the site was compromised and if reports are correct and the event was more show than substance.
The U.S. has been lowering expectations for this meeting and Trump has said that he is prepared to walk out if it does not go well. That would be in keeping with his theatrical approach to negotiating, but petulance will help North Korea even more. A cool, clear-eyed assessment of the prospects for a long-term relationship with North Korea is needed, not reality-TV plot twists.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington to meet with Trump and remind him of the stakes for U.S. allies and partners. Trump must not be seduced by the prospect of getting to declare an end to the Korean War. He must remember that it is not just the U.S. that is threatened by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs; a deal that merely caps the North’s intercontinental missiles will not do. All nations are endangered by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and its disrespect for international law. North Korea is as much a scofflaw as Iran: Pyongyang must be held to account for its regional missile programs, cyberattacks, kidnappings and other illegal activities as Trump demanded of Tehran. We expect him to honor his pledge to make the case for the accounting for and return of the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents.
Prior to his Singapore summit, Trump will meet other world leaders at the Group of Seven summit in Canada. If the G7 finance ministers meeting is any portent, that summit will be a contentious affair, with Trump isolated as a result of his trade unilateralism. His readiness to turn his back on international commitments in matters of trade does not bode well for his commitment to look after allies’ interests in security matters. Even more worrisome is the prospect that complaints from G7 partners will color his approach to the Singapore negotiations, The world watches with baited breath as the Singapore summit approaches.