President Donald Trump is dropping strong hints and suggestions that he would like to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un again this year. In his annual New Year’s address, Kim said the same.
The two leaders met last summer, in Singapore. That meeting was widely panned as a “photo-op summit” from which Trump brought home little for an event which helped legitimize North Korea, long a pariah state in international relations. And indeed, six months out from the summit, Trump appears to have gotten little. A second meeting, therefore, needs to extract more deliverables for the U.S.-South Korean side, or it is not worth the cost of the increasing normalization of a North Korea that is both newly nuclear and still an orwellian tyranny.
The logic of Trump-Kim summitry is that a leaders meeting can break through the decades of hostility and bureaucratic morass with a bold gesture. The South Korean left particularly has long argued for this approach. Hawks have generally balked, insisting that a meeting between a gangster dictator and the leader of the Free World is something North Korea must earn through concessions.
Trump’s outreach has been a test of the two competing assertions. And given that no U.S. president had ever met a North Korean leader, perhaps it was worth a try. Certainly dovish advocates of summitry can justifiably argue that decades of previous lower level engagement had not worked, so why not try a big-bang summit?
The verdict to date though is mixed to poor, and resistance to summitry will grow if Trump meets with Kim again and brings home little. Last year’s summitry has not been very successful. So far, it has met minimal, “negative” goals—that is, the summitry appears to have stopped even worse North Korean behavior, but not actually changed it for the better. To be fair, the status quo is better than 2017, with its many missile tests and threats of war. But critically, North Korea has not actually done much since then other than refrain from provocation.
After a year of engagement, North Korea has not moved on any of the strategic and political issues where we hope for progress. On human rights and internal political liberalization, there has been no movement at all. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea recently confirmed that North Korea’s human-rights situation has not changed at all in the last two years. Nor has there been any other appreciable liberalization other than a winking state tolerance for corruption and small-scale markets. Kim is not Mikhail Gorbachev or Nelson Mandela, nor even Deng Xiaoping.
On the strategic issues, there has been movement on the conventional stand-off between North and South Korea. But Trump is not responsible for this; South Korean president Moon Jae-in is responsible for it. And indeed, the U.S. military in Korea has expressed some hesitation about the concessions Moon is making without consulting the U.S. side. But on the issues which dominate the strategic discussion—nuclear warheads, missiles and missile launchers—there has been no progress at all.
The North Koreans have detonated or deconstructed a few facilities, but without inspectors, it is hard to know if those demolitions are valuable or even are genuine down-builds. But regarding the weapons themselves—the core issue over which Trump threatened war in 2017—there has been no progress. In fact, the North has still not even given us an inventory of what they have so that we might begin to bargain over what we might give them in exchange for things on that list.
This is the acid test for Trump’s next meeting with Kim. These meetings are a prestige victory in themselves for the North. They place the world’s worst human-rights violator on an equal standing with the leader of the world’s oldest democracy. Trump seems unaware or disinterested in these optics, but much of the North Korea-watching community is, which is why the response has been so tepid.
So if we must have these summits, if we must cede the North these propaganda victories, then we had best get something out of them. A repeat of the first Singapore summit, where the United States got little and Kim Jong-un got to look like a statesman, would be an error. Trump missed his chance then to get an inventory of what the North Koreans have in order to jump start denuclearization talks. He must get that this time.
Indeed, that seems like a fair trade, if not actually balance-positive for the North Koreans: they get the pictures and the legitimation, and Trump gets the inventory. If Trump, who markets himself as a great negotiator, cannot pull even this small step out of Pyongyang, he should not go. And the North Koreans need to guarantee that in writing before Trump assents to a second summit.
The Singapore summit was Trump’s big chance to pull a major concession out of the North Koreans because North Korea had desperately sought a U.S. summit for decades. Trump missed this opportunity to bargain for at least the inventory back then. He should not make that mistake again. At minimum, Trump must leave the next summit with an inventory—ideally pre-checked by the U.S. intelligence community to insure it is not total flim-flam. If not, then what is the point of summiting? Process is not a goal in itself. Just talking with North Korea is not an outcome we want. No inventory, no meeting.
Robert Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his writing can be found on his website. He tweets at @Robert_E_Kelly.