A U.S.-North Korea summit: What could possibly go wrong?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets members of the special delegation of South Korea's President in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 6, 2018. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. - RC121AE10930

In his sudden and surprising (reportedly even to his staff) acceptance of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s offer of a summit, President Donald J. Trump has agreed to what may be the most consequential meeting of his presidency. This stunning development has raised hopes that a resolution of the North Korean nuclear challenge that has plagued the United States and its allies for a quarter of a century could be in the offing. Regrettably, such hopes seem likely to be dashed. The U.S. president is walking into a risky, even dangerous situation, with a deeply uncertain outcome. He could be walking into a trap.

Despite the optimism flowing from the recent South Korean dialogue with Kim Jong-un, especially the widespread belief that North Korea is prepared to denuclearize, the North Korean leader has in fact not agreed to give up his nuclear weapons. As the South’s envoy to Pyongyang said during his post-visit press conference in Seoul, the North Koreans stated their “willingness” to “denuclearize the Korean Peninsula” in return for a removal of the “threat” and once Pyongyang feels “secure.” This language is virtually identical to a phrase (“the denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula”) that veterans of negotiations with the North Koreans have heard many times over the years. A clear understanding of its meaning will show that North Korea’s vision of “denuclearization” bears no resemblance to the American understanding of that term.

In recent years, senior North Korean officials have told U.S. officials and participants in non-governmental dialogues exactly what this phrase means. They have said it means the elimination of the “threat” posed by the U.S.-South Korea alliance, by U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, and by the U.S. nuclear umbrella that defends South Korea and Japan. They have told us that, in return for U.S. steps to eliminate these “threats” the DPRK would “consider” denuclearization in 10-20 years’ time if Pyongyang feels “secure.”

We have heard this from high levels of the North Korean regime, including the man who is now North Korea’s foreign minister. And now, ROK Envoy Ambassador Chung has heard it in Pyongyang. Unless the North Korean leader has had a major change of heart in recent weeks—and there is no evidence that he has—this North Korean interpretation of “denuclearization” should be as unacceptable to the Trump administration as it has been to every previous U.S. administration.

Eighteen years ago, President Clinton decided not to go to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il because the North Koreans were already reneging on their promises and because it made no sense to risk the dignity and reputation of the U.S. president only to find out that the North Koreans were not prepared to make a deal. Presidents finalize and bless agreements that have already been negotiated by experts and professionals. They do not, and should not, engage in risky talks on complex issues that, if not handled carefully and cautiously, could lead to war.

And it is a given that one never wants to engage in summitry without a clear sense of what the outcome will be. The North Korean vision of “denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula” cannot be an acceptable outcome for the United States, and should not be for America’s South Korean ally.

[Trump] and his administration should reflect carefully and ask whether the “deal” they seek is really within reach.

So as President Trump contemplates a direct encounter with Kim Jong-un, he and his administration should reflect carefully and ask whether the “deal” they seek is really within reach. And whether there is any “deal” to be had at all. Trump administration senior officials should ask themselves whether the Kim Jong-un who has described nuclear weapons as the regime’s “treasured sword” and who, on January 1st, declared that the United States must accept the permanent “reality” of North Korea as a nuclear state, has all of a sudden gotten religion and changed his position.

President Trump, as he contemplates the possibility of this summit, is running the risk of falling into the trap that President Clinton avoided in 2000. And he is doing so without even having a fraction of the hope for North Korean denuclearization that Clinton had 18 years ago.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s game plan seems troublingly clear. Kim Jong-un sees as a chance to sit down with the United States as “one nuclear weapons state with another”—as the man who is now the North Korean foreign minister once told us. Kim hopes to gain the legitimacy and international stature that would flow from that meeting—benefits that he would obtain for nothing. And as Kim made eminently clear in his January 1st speech, he also seeks to “normalize” North Korea’s nuclear status and, eventually, to gain acceptance of the North’s nuclear weapons program, including from the United States. There is no reason to believe that the position laid out by Kim Jong-un in his New Year’s address has changed. North Korean media, which trumpet every utterance of the Young General, have said nothing about his interest in denuclearization, and have not reported any commitments he may have made to the South Korean envoy in this connection. Seoul may think it obtained such commitments, but Pyongyang has been silent on this matter, and with good reason. 

As we await a possible summit, there is every reason to be concerned that Kim may be hoping to create a “Neville Chamberlain moment” by offering President Trump a “freeze” of the North’s nuclear testing program that the U.S. president could then point to as the outcome of the summit. We know that a “freeze” on the testing of North Korean nuclear weapons would leave the nuclear threat to our allies, our overseas bases, and the U.S. homeland in place. We know it would allow Pyongyang to continue to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, build new nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, improve its nuclear weapons and missiles through non-kinetic testing, and even construct additional facilities to produce more nuclear materials. No previous U.S. administration has been prepared to accept such a “deal.”

There are many reasons to be concerned about the prospect of a U.S.-North Korea summit. Before any summit takes place, a senior-level U.S. envoy should first meet with the North Korean leader, take his measure, look him in the eye, and ask the tough questions that must be asked to ensure that the American president is not going to walk into a trap of North Korean design. Based on previous North Korean behavior and Pyongyang’s record of duplicity, it is likely that a U.S. envoy will find that Kim Jong-un, a master tactician, is not prepared to so easily surrender his “treasured sword” just because President Trump asks him to. President Trump would do well to understand the danger of this outcome before he meets with Kim, not afterward.