Since he inherited the throne of the Hermit Kingdom from his father more than six years ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had never stepped off of North Korean soil. That changed last week, when the young Kim traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Korea watchers have speculated that Kim’s two-day trip to China was an attempt by the North Korean dictator to repair a relationship that has been frosty of late. Whatever the motive, President Donald Trump has interpreted Kim’s reported commitment to denuclearization as an affirmation of his “maximum pressure,” and now engagement, policy. Within hours of Kim’s visit to China, Trump boastfully tweeted, “There is a good chance that Kim [Jong-un] will do what is right for his people and for humanity” by disarming his nuclear weapons program.” Full, complete, and verified denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is, of course, the whole reason the White House is looking ahead to the yet-to-be scheduled summit between Trump and Kim. The president is eager to make history and shine where his four previous predecessors failed.
The prospects of Trump actually making that history is another question entirely, which is why it would be wise for the administration to counsel the president into lowering his expectations.
Don’t misunderstand the premise: The United States and North Korean leaders exchanging smiles and handshakes would be the definition of an historic diplomatic event. The last time a U.S. cabinet official met with the head of the Kim family was eighteen years ago, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pontificated with Kim Jong-il about a possible presidential retreat.
Yet at the same time, we all need to be brutally honest about the likelihood of Trump, or any American negotiator, extracting major deliverables from Kim during these discussions.
Notwithstanding the cheerful tone from Seoul and Beijing, and the oftentimes jubilant excitement beaming from President Trump, the history of North Korean nuclear negotiations over the previous quarter of a century is all the evidence one needs to be cautious, if not cynical.
One does not need to be an expert on the Kim regime’s leadership structure or decisionmaking process to grasp the reality that a Pyongyang without a nuclear weapons capability would be left in an extremely vulnerable position. As John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, argued, Pyongyang has very little incentive to denuclearize. “We don’t see any evidence that the U.S., which has the most powerful conventional forces in the world, is giving up their nuclear weapons,” Mearsheimer noted, “So why would you expect North Korea to do so?”
Kim Jong-un has made some reassuring, if not carefully worded, statements about his willingness to denuclearize. He has conditioned those statements on Washington abolishing its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang.
Assuming that Kim is genuine in his openness to shut down his nuclear weapons program—a big assumption—he will only think about doing so if security assurances from the United States are guaranteed, all 28,500 American troops are withdrawn from South Korea, all U.S. and U.N. sanctions are terminated, and the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan is lifted. All of these demands are anathema to the Washington foreign-policy playbook, yet these are precisely the concessions Kim Jong-un will insist upon before, during, and after the summit with Trump, should that meeting come to pass.
The chance Kim agrees to swift denuclearization is vanishingly small. This, however, does not mean that President Trump’s decision to talk with his North Korean counterpart is misguided. Dialogue with Kim can still yield dividends for the United States. Notwithstanding the fear-induced drama in Washington about the world “running out of time,” Trump should use the summit to remind Kim that the United States and its allies in East Asia are committed to deterring and containing his regime indefinitely.
Incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton has recommended a short meeting with Kim, in which the United States lays out an ultimatum: Either denuclearize on the front end or prepare for the worst. This course of action, however, would be exactly the wrong approach to take. An ultimatum would not only fail to coerce Pyongyang into offering concessions, but would also signal that the United States is a frightened country more comfortable with precipitating a crisis than leveraging its deterrent strength.
The truth is that the status quo favors the United States—time is on our side, not Kim’s.
Rather than walking away as Bolton advises, Trump should make the most of his personal dialogue with the North Korean leader to establish a secure, reliable communications link between Washington and Pyongyang—a channel to replace largely haphazard and issue-specific conversations with a more predictable mechanism. Communicating red lines and intentions clearly and directly benefits us. American and North Korean officials would have quickly troubleshooting in the event of a mishap or a crisis. Dialogue would both help keep a nuclear-armed North Korea in a box and decrease the chances of miscalculating or blundering into an enormously costly war.
As much as we would all like to turn on the television one morning and learn that Kim Jong-un has relinquished his nuclear stockpile, it would be the epitome of foolishness if the administration threw all of its eggs in the denuclearization basket.
A Trump retreat with Kim can be a success if he focuses on attainable and important goals for the United States—decreasing risk, increasing dialogue, and avoiding a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula. The creation of a hotline between Washington to Pyongyang would reinforce the one policy that has proven successful with every other nuclear adversary: deterrence; containment; and clear-minded, pragmatic, and common-sense diplomacy.
Daniel R. DePetris, a fellow at Washington-based think tank Defense Priorities. He is a columnist for the National Interest and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter at @dandepetris.