Maybe it really is the dawn of a new era for the United States and North Korea. In a matter of hours, President Trump and Kim Jong Un will be shaking hands, sizing each other up, and planning for a less belligerent future.
A successful summit could be a boon for both sides. If North Korea relinquishes its nuclear weapons, the cash-starved nation would likely get economic aid, sanction-free business opportunities, and perhaps the withdrawal of US military personnel from South Korea.
In return, the United States could finally cross “North Korea nuclear attack” off its list of top national security concerns.
But when does the course of Trump deal-making ever run smoothly? Certainly not last week, when Trump abruptly backed out of a joint statement from the G-7, then attacked the Canadian prime minister for being a weak double-crosser. Meantime, NAFTA renegotiations have broken down, trade talks with China are strained, a promised compromise on DACA has been forgotten, and peace between Israel and the Palestinians — which Trump called the “ultimate deal” — seems as remote as ever.
Then there’s the recently scuttled Iran nuclear deal, which the administration deemed too lax to stand. Trouble is, it was built on the same basic trade being considered for North Korea: You give up your weapons program, we’ll relax sanctions and help your economy.
It’s hard to imagine the North Koreans accepting much tougher terms — particularly as they are in a stronger negotiating position. They already have working nuclear weapons and missiles capable of striking the United States. Iran didn’t.
What does all this mean for Tuesday’s summit? As of now, it seems like anything is possible.
Start with prospects for a real diplomatic breakthrough. Trump’s willingness to meet with Kim — despite their history of mutual truculence — speaks to his real desire to resolve this longstanding issue. It’s a rare and potentially legacy-defining opportunity, a chance to bring peace to the Korean peninsula and be remembered as the president who struck a deal his predecessors could not. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all tried and failed to quell the North Korean threat.
It helps, too, that there’s broad agreement on the basic contours of this denuclearization-for-sanctions-relief deal, which could give negotiators a good starting point to delve into some of the more difficult details.
Though with details as devilish as these, negotiators might prefer to delay. Not only are there tricky issues about timing — Who goes first? How gradually will the denuclearization process unfold? —
but there is also the problem of verification. It’s not clear North Korea will accept the ongoing presence of international monitors, the way Iran did. And while you can hope that a winning negotiating strategy might force North Korea to embrace our preferred timetable and verification scheme, that’s not always how dealmaking works.
What’s more, the Trump-Kim meeting is imperiled by a lack of planning. Usually, presidential summits are preceded by months or years of lower-level consensus building. When President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988, virtually every move was scripted. That’s not Trump’s style, but taking the more improvisational approach leaves lot of room for commitments that sound good in the moment but look more dubious on the trip home.
And because the Unites States and North Korea are hardly the only interested parties, any agreement they reach will immediately come under scrutiny from China, Japan, South Korea, and other regional powers demanding changes in the name of various national interests.
So rather than expect a breakthrough (or a breakdown, for that matter)
the most likely outcome of this week’s summit may be something less substantive: a successful pageant.
It should be relatively easy for Trump and Kim to find some common ground then issue a pair of hopeful statements — even if none of the hard stuff gets hashed out. That way, Kim would gain a new global legitimacy, merely by standing alongside the US president mouthing diplomatic phrases. And Trump would get a public triumph, the first successful sitdown with a North Korean head of state.
Should talks break down later, Trump and Kim could blame each other before returning to their long game of mutual recrimination.
For summit watchers, though, it’s important not to confuse spectacle with substance. What happens in the main room between Trump and Kim may actually turn out to be a sideshow, less important than the slow work of figuring out whether both countries are really willing to make the kind of sacrifices necessary for a durable compromise.