Participants in the North Korea policy process have long known that Pyongyang yearns for a presidential-level meeting, given the international legitimization that such an encounter bestows on the North Korean leader. The North Koreans have consistently stated—including before talk of military strikes and a maximum pressure campaign—that anything could be possible if only a leaders-level meeting could be arranged.
But here’s the rub: Only an unconventional American leader with a tolerance for risk and a flair for the dramatic would pursue such a high-stakes gambit. And at the same time, only an administration with intense discipline and diplomatic dexterity will have any hope of succeeding where others have come up short.
Here are a few signposts to watch for in determining whether conditions are being set for success for a future summit between Trump and Kim:
Prioritization. The Trump administration will need to build a laser-like focus around the Trump-Kim summit as the number one foreign policy priority for the coming months. This likely will require the administration to prioritize building buy-in first with Seoul and Tokyo, and then Beijing and Moscow for a step-by-step roadmap of reciprocal actions leading to denuclearization that Trump could convey to Kim. It will also require empowering an envoy to negotiate with North Korea on timing, location, format, and outcomes for any summit. Finally, the Trump administration will need to minimize actions that could undermine support from South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia in the run-up to the summit. To avoid the trap of rewarding North Korea merely for showing up for talks, there should not be any let-up in the maximum pressure campaign.
Restraint. Trump likely will need to shelve (at least temporarily) plans to take unilateral trade actions against China on intellectual property concerns if he is serious about eliciting Beijing’s buy-in for a denuclearization roadmap. In the absence of Chinese buy-in, any offer that Trump makes to Kim of a step-for-step sequence leading to denuclearization will not be credible.
Xi, like Trump, has domestic politics to manage. Xi already has shaken the Chinese political establishment by revising constitutional term limits to enable himself to extend his presidency beyond his second term. Xi will be loath to provide a spark for criticism from Party elites now by being perceived as “helping” Trump on North Korea at the same time Trump is “harming” China on trade.
Expectation management. The odds that Trump and Kim will reach a grand bargain in their first encounter for the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula are close to zero, though with Trump, how close to zero is tough to discern. The White House will need to lower the bar of expectations so that steps in the direction of denuclearization will be perceived as a measure of success. Examples of steps that could serve as proof points of progress could include an agreement by Trump and Kim to set up diplomatic representative offices in each other’s capitals to continue negotiations and lower risk of misunderstanding leading to miscalculation, or agreement on a framework and timeframe for negotiations on denuclearization and normalization of relations, paired with an assurance that North Korea will halt enrichment-related activities and not conduct nuclear or missile tests while negotiations are ongoing.
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. Such an outcome would mark a tragic repetition of a historic pattern of a breakdown in diplomacy hastening conflict.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.