The Hanoi Summit – We Asked Michael Cohen What Happens Next in U.S.-North Korea Relations

Senior military officials watch a parade as portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen in the background at the main Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui SEARCH

The Hanoi Summit – We Asked Michael Cohen What Happens Next in U.S.-North Korea Relations

"No deal can compensate for the security that nuclear weapons provide to Kim’s regime."

Editor’s Note: Looking for more opinions on where we go after the Hanoi summit? Check out all 80 expert takes on where U.S-North Korea relations go next here.

Another summit? Unlikely in the short term given that Kim Jong-un’s bottom line seemed to be the removal of all sanctions—which President Donald Trump cannot unilaterally authorize—and Trump wanted more denuclearization than Kim was willing to concede. If the Mueller investigation and Cohen testimony further paint Trump into a corner he may seek a third summit in an attempt to conjure up an alleged foreign-policy victory. The probability of a bad deal here for the United States and especially its regional alliances would be high. Ideally Trump would allow State Department staff level diplomats and technocrats to hammer out some smaller proposals that the North Koreans might agree to and which might then be the basis for greater U.S. and North Korean concessions. But given Trump’s penchant for hastily put together summits with more show than substance this also seems unlikely.    

Deal or No Deal? Trump and whoever succeeds him will have to live with North Korean nuclear weapons (or face nuclear war: see below). No deal can compensate for the security that nuclear weapons provide to Kim’s regime. U.S. assurances that Trump or his successor can live with a nonnuclear North Korea will be very tough given years of mistrust and isolation, the fact that Trump’s successor may not honor the deal and the fate of states like Libya and Iraq that surrendered or did not have nuclear weapons programs and were toppled. Deals whereby North Korea commits to cease nuclear weapons production or eliminate some of its arsenal—like the strategic weapons capable of targeting the United States—also face the serious arms control challenge of verification. North Korea is unlikely to allow any inspections that could provide information that could be used by the United States to target nuclear facilities in a crisis.

War? Trump and Kim seem to have arrived at a quasi-agreement where a continued cessation of North Korean nuclear and missile tests is met by the United States also keeping its powder dry. Kim seems likely to continue adhering to this in the hope that he might be able to extract further concessions from Trump before the 2020 election. Trump too seems motivated by the promise of being viewed as peacemaker. But if Kim or Trump decide that concessions are better realized through threats rather than diplomacy, especially as the 2020 presidential election approaches, a crisis, escalation and war could be easily brought about.

Dr. Michael Cohen is a Senior Lecturer at the National Security College, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. He is the author of When Proliferation Causes Peace: The Psychology of Nuclear Crises, co-editor of North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering The New Era of Deterrence and articles in several scholarly journals.

Image: Reuters