Reality check: the June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be a success because Trump will call it a success . Both leaders want it to succeed and both leaders love good publicity. The expert’s eye will not matter to them politically because it will be packaged and sold to key constituents as historic and unprecedented. Even if the summit yields no results or breaks down, both leaders have an out—they can spin it in any direction to save face or they can each blame the other for any breakdowns.
The noise, anticipation and skepticism will all crescendo as the date draws near. As risky as this summit is, and as unprepared as Trump may be, Washington still has a rare opportunity to make the best of “the water that’s already been spilled,” as the Korean saying goes. It would be a mistake not to take full advantage of the political space that has been created for the first time in six years. It’s a rare and unique opportunity to seek clarity directly from Kim himself—the sole decisionmaker in the top-down authoritarian North Korean regime—and to try to convince him directly to choose between his nuclear weapons or a brighter future.
The odds are stacked against Washington, which has failed to change Pyongyang’s strategic calculus over the course of several decades, and it is harder now with a more confident and savvy North Korea armed with nuclear-tipped inter-continental ballistic missiles. The challenges facing Washington are further exacerbated by an American president who may not fully understand the complexities of both the nuclear and regional components intertwined within this issue. But the art of negotiations means a chance to bargain hard with one’s eyes wide open, to try to make the impossible possible, and keep the diplomatic process alive to continuously test each other and avoid kinetic means.
Trump’s unconventional approach to international relations, especially when dealing with North Korea, means an unconventional outcome is probable on June 12. Managing expectations in all diplomatic endeavors is almost as important as the outcome because international negotiations are unpredictable. That is particularly true when Trump is approaching the summit as would any typical business tycoon who likes to get to know his counterpart first, chat over a game of golf, and make a move for a deal at another time. Even conventional diplomatic negotiations, after their proper groundwork has been finalized, rarely yield agreements in their first round.
Trump seems to want a “one-shot” deal and Pyongyang will aim for a phased approach to extend negotiations for as long as possible to test the president. Kim will likely try to game the system to receive some concessions along the way, build in exit ramps if he finds himself in a disadvantageous position, and keep his nuclear weapons for as long as possible. A potential deal can be called a “one-shot,” but the simple reality is that any deal needs to be implemented in phases, which is where the regime’s crafty manipulation is expected to thrive. The 2005 Six Party Joint Statement was essentially a one-shot deal, or a grand bargain, whose implementation required at least three agreements, although the multilateral process broke down before the second implementing agreement was fully carried out over disagreements on a nuclear verification protocol. South Korea’s conservative Lee Myung-bak wanted a “grand bargain,” but the Obama administration was against that approach.
This all means that Trump should not be expected to be—nor be molded into—a typical lead negotiator to a nuclear deal. Trump has already broken conventional diplomatic orthodoxy, as such, some unconventional thinking is needed on what could and should be accomplished in Singapore.
The June 12 summit in Singapore could result in a deal, no deal or a breakdown. So far, it is apparent that both leaders personally can’t afford a breakdown, so their rendezvous may result in a theatrical summit with uncertain next steps. If Trump and Kim are unable to strike a deal, then the best outcome would be for them to agree on meeting again, declare their next date and agree to maintain a positive and friendly atmosphere until then.
In order to reach an acceptable deal, or even an good one, the first order of business is to clarify key terminology and each other’s goals and intentions. That is especially true for the definition , scope and sequencing for denuclearization as well as on what exactly Kim Jong-un wants in the form of security guarantees. Pyongyang’s wish list tends to evolve even after agreeing to give the regime what it originally demanded.
The next order would be to agree on a joint vision statement that declares end goals and provides a starting point for nuclear negotiations. It would certainly be a big win if the statement contains details on denuclearization, verification and corresponding U.S. concessions. But all things considered, it would still be a good outcome if the two leaders agreed on key principles and outcomes, and built in pathways to negotiate details and methods by their senior diplomats and officials.