Keeping expectations in check for the Trump-Kim summit

Keeping expectations in check for the Trump-Kim summit

It’s official: The big event will be happening after all. First it was very much on. Then it was definitely off. Then it was maybe on again. And now it is very much on once again. 

On June 12, Donald Trump will indeed meet Kim Jong Un in Singapore — one of the most ballyhooed international diplomatic summits of all time. Two men who not too long ago were trading taunts and threatening war will now be participating in the most high-level form of diplomacy.
 
No matter the outcome, the summit will be a win for Trump and Kim. But for the world on the whole, the summit will be no cause for celebration. And that’s because it will do little to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, one of the great global stability threats of our times.
 
For Trump, the meeting with Kim will bring everything the US president has ever wanted: Fever-pitch media attention, immense pageantry, and opportunities galore to gloat. Trump will be able to point to new precedents (never has a sitting American president met with a North Korean supreme leader) and to major achievements (“I’m helping prevent nuclear war,” “I’ve started us on a path to peace on the Korean Peninsula”). And, of course, there will be a raft of tweetable moments for the US president.
 
For Kim, the summit will bring ample prestige. The young North Korean leader will be able to boast that he gained an audience with the most powerful person on the planet — something neither his father nor his grandfather could say. Indeed, in at least one other case — that of Bill Clinton in 2000 — a US president declined an opportunity to sit down with his North Korean counterpart.
 
And yet, at the end of the day, the summit won’t compel Pyongyang to denuclearize. The Trump administration is sadly mistaken if it believes the summit will mark the start of a gradual process to craft a deal that ultimately results in denuclearization.
 
Indeed, experts on North Korea and on non-proliferation have been shouting from the rooftops for years that Pyongyang will never denuclearize. And indeed why would it? North Korea’s nukes are the ultimate bargaining chip and its most powerful, and perhaps only, tool of leverage. More broadly, nukes help Pyongyang pursue its core goal of regime preservation: A North Korea with nuclear weapons is less likely to be attacked than a North Korea without nuclear weapons.
 
True, the regime has said it would consider denuclearization if it gets a security guarantee from Washington — in effect, a pledge from America that it would never launch a military attack on North Korea. However, Pyongyang could easily renege on such a promise.
Even if the summit doesn’t prompt denuclearization, it can still help address the other major source of instability on the Korean Peninsula
Michael Kugelman
Additionally, the White House has never taken military action off the table. In fact, that’s an option that could well move to the policy front burner if diplomatic efforts are deemed not to be working. Let’s not forget that North Korea hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo recently entered the administration, so it beggars belief that the US government would provide North Korea with the security assurances it covets.
 
This isn’t to say the summit will be a waste of time; far from it. As Winston Churchill famously said: “It is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.” The stakes are astronomically high; they don’t get any higher when it comes to the issue of nuclear weapons. In these contexts, talking is always better than not talking.
 
Furthermore, even if the summit doesn’t prompt denuclearization, it can still help address the other major source of instability on the Korean Peninsula — the fraught relationship between North and South Korea. The two sides haven’t concluded a formal peace since the uneasy truce that ended the Korean War decades ago. 
 
Trump and Kim reportedly plan to discuss the possibility of a formal agreement to end that war. Kim and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, have already met twice over the last few weeks, and both Kim and Moon have recently called for peace. The Trump-Kim meeting could add more momentum to these fledgling but promising developments.
 
However, decades of hostility and mistrust on the Korean Peninsula can’t be overcome overnight — and certainly not by a single meeting between Kim and Trump. If the Trump administration is genuinely invested in helping broker peace between North and South Korea, it will need to invest many more resources in diplomacy. For a White House with a tendency to securitize foreign policy, that may be too tall of an order.
 
The bottom line is that, amid all the banner headlines, blinding flashbulbs and boastful White House proclamations that will accompany the summit, it is essential for us all to keep our expectations firmly and deeply in check.
 
  •  Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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