Is the situation with North Korea now distinct enough from past diplomatic efforts to justify hope of a better outcome? What are the most likely paths following a summit, and what signposts could be used to identify those paths? Ryan Hass explores these and related questions, in a piece that was originally published by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
While the exact timing and location of a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will remain fluid until both men physically enter the same room, the odds that a summit will occur currently appear high. The main reason: Trump and Kim each seem genuinely invested in meeting. Both leaders have given the other ample excuses to walk away—inflammatory statements, no-shows at planning meetings, public break-up letters—but neither has done so. In the face of every setback, both leaders have forged ahead in their efforts to set up a summit.
This raises two key questions: First, is the situation now distinct enough from past diplomatic efforts to justify hope of a better outcome? Second, what are the most likely paths following a summit, and what signposts could be used to identify those paths?
Is this time different? The diplomatic history between the United States and North Korea is littered with dashed hopes and broken promises. In 1994, North Korea agreed to dismantle its plutonium-production reactors in exchange for civilian power reactors from the West. In 2005, North Korea committed, through the Six-Party Talks, to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” In 2012, the United States and North Korea agreed that North Korea would put a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and the United States would provide substantial food aid.
Words have not matched deeds. During this period, North Korea has developed a missile capable of striking anywhere in the United States. It has tested a nuclear warhead 10 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And from its actions in other areas, it has demonstrated a willingness to employ weapons of mass destruction, such as in the apparent assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother with a chemical nerve agent at a crowded Malaysian airport.
Given this dismal record, why should anyone hold out hope for progress? At the most fundamental level, the argument for engagement boils down to a bet that Trump and Kim each differ enough from their predecessors that a Venn diagram of their interests might overlap sufficiently to produce a deal. According to this logic, Trump would seek Kim’s agreement for near-term, complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization and, in exchange, Kim would receive normalization of relations with the United States, a treaty ending the Korean War, assurances of American support for his continued rule, admission into the community of nations, and support for North Korea’s economic development.
Trump is willing to weigh trade-offs that his predecessors would not.
In the United States, there is broad recognition that Trump is an unconventional leader who will take risks that his predecessors would not. He is situationally flexible, able to overlook North Korean human rights atrocities one day and condemn them on another day. Trump toggles between public praise and censure of Kim Jong-un, depending on the circumstance. He is unencumbered by the history of US attempts to deal with North Korea, including the failures of his predecessors who, by his telling, lacked his negotiating acumen. Trump is unburdened by details. He conceivably could secure an understanding with Kim Jong-un and leave the particulars to his staff to sort out. Finally, Trump is willing to weigh trade-offs that his predecessors would not. He has publicly entertained altering the nature of the United States’ relationship with South Korea. He has suggested a willingness to support Kim Jong-un’s continued rule of North Korea, and also offered publicly to support a large infusion of economic assistance to North Korea in the event of denuclearization.
Another key difference from past periods is South Korea’s leader. President Moon has a clear vision for the future of the Korean Peninsula, views relaxation of tensions between the United States and North Korea as critical for achievement of his vision, and has been tireless in seeking to bring Trump and Kim together.
There also is some sense that Kim Jong-un is distinct from his grandfather and father in his determination to modernize North Korea. Kim faces challenges his forebears did not—the penetration of information from the outside world, the loosening of state control over commerce, the spread of consumerism, the emergence of a moneyed class that does not owe its privileged position to the beneficence of the regime, and the networking of society through the steady proliferation of cellphones. Kim confronts rising expectations from within at the same time that he contends with ever-tightening sanctions from abroad. So, according to this logic, in order to satisfy internal expectations, he will need to reduce external pressure, and this dynamic could push Kim down the path of denuclearization.
A word of caution, however. Whereas many support Trump’s effort to test whether diplomacy can yield a breakthrough, virtually no North Korea analyst inside or outside of the US government expects Kim Jong-un to relinquish his nuclear weapons. Former CIA analyst and Brookings scholar Jung Pak reflects the mainstream view among experts that Kim sees the nuclear program as “vital to the security of his regime and his legitimacy as leader of North Korea.” According to recent reporting from media outlets such as NBC News, this view still holds in the CIA ’s analysis of Kim’s intentions.
Where are things headed? Assuming that Trump and Kim meet, there are four plausible paths that could emerge from the summit: success; an inconclusive outcome; inconclusive outcome leading to incremental, positive next steps; or breakdown leading to increased hostilities. Let us consider each of these in turn.
Success. In this scenario, Kim makes a bold decision to trade North Korea’s nuclear program to secure North Korea’s economic future and US support for his continued rule of North Korea. The two leaders agree that all of North Korea’s nuclear weaponry and means of producing them will be dismantled. Its fissile material will be inventoried and removed, nuclear scientists involved in weapons programs will be re-employed, and the country will open to intrusive inspections. Signposts validating that both parties are committed to such a path would include clear, specific, unequivocal statements from both leaders articulating steps that each would take to address the requirements of the other, followed by visible removal of nuclear material from North Korea and ongoing, rigorous inspections to verify compliance.
Inconclusive outcome. In this scenario, both leaders agree on the end goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula but remain non-specific on what is expected of the other in order to enable such an outcome, including expected timelines and how both sides define “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. Both leaders take measure of the other, agree to stay in contact, and instruct their negotiating teams to work out next steps. In such a scenario, Trump and White House staff are likely to emphasize the “personal chemistry” between both leaders and how it provided a basis for continued diplomatic dialogue. Trump and Kim would confirm that nuclear and missile tests will be suspended while talks continue. Trump would point to Kim’s commitment to denuclearization, while Kim would be able to defend his efforts domestically as a practical step for relieving external pressure without compromising strategic objectives.
Inconclusive outcome leading to incremental, positive, next steps. This scenario would exceed the pure “inconclusive outcome” above by including a few upfront commitments of incremental steps North Korea would take as gestures of sincerity for moving down the path of (eventual) denuclearization. Such incremental steps could resemble the symbolic demolition of a cooling tower at Yongbyon in 2008, or the late-May closure of North Korea’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. Pyongyang would offer such steps to satisfy Washington’s desire for visual proof of progress while stopping short of the degradation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons production capability.
Breakdown. In this scenario, Trump presents Kim with a hard-and-fast binary choice: relinquish nuclear weapons and live in peace and prosperity, or cling to them and risk the impoverishment of your people and the safety of your regime. Kim rejects Trump’s binary choice, talks break down, and no agreement is reached on next steps. Trump explains that he made a good-faith effort to resolve the North Korea nuclear challenge diplomatically. He shifts blame to Kim for rejecting his offer, and likely also to China for enabling Kim. Kim defends his decision, arguing that Trump sought to make him negotiate with a gun to his head, and he shifts the focus of his engagement to Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow. South Korean President Moon tries to serve as a bridge and encourage the resumption of dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. Japanese Prime Minister Abe stands by Trump. Risk of rapid escalation grows, and US consideration of military options intensifies.
What follows a summit? These four pathways are intended to be illustrative, not exhaustive. The key takeaway point from considering all these pathways—however likely or unlikely each individual one may be—is that while a summit between Trump and Kim would be historic, it is unlikely to be decisive. This is not the fault of either Trump or Kim, but rather a reflection that intractable, decades-long strategic challenges rarely—if ever—get resolved in single encounters.
This suggests that expectations need to be managed and preparations need to be made for the critical period that follows a Trump-Kim summit. Now is the time for policymakers to work methodically through what Washington will expect of Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and Moscow going forward; what conditions need to be met to introduce incentives into the negotiations; whether and when to increase or decrease external pressure on North Korea; how to minimize the threat from North Korea until denuclearization is achieved; and whether to seek to increase internal stress on the North Korea regime while talks are ongoing. While the pageantry and planning of summits is exciting, what follows likely will be what will have the most impact.