If press reports are accurate, US President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un will again meet this month. They met for the first time last June in Singapore. Rumour suggests this meeting will be in Vietnam.
The first summit was sharply criticised as a photo-op for Trump – as the first US president to “boldly” meet the North Koreans face-to-face – and for Kim – as the first North Korean leader to nab a meeting with the most powerful person in the world. Style and process dominated that event. There was much talk of “drama” and “making history”. Farce made it worse. Dennis Rodman naturally showed up at Singapore to cry on CNN in a PotCoin t-shirt and “Make American Great Again” hat. (Seriously.) Even that hack BBC Dad somehow showed up on BBC in Singapore to provide commentary.
But the substance was light. The final “Sentosa Declaration” provided no concrete action plan or timeline. North Korea made the same vague noises about denuclearisation it has since the early 1990s. And since the meeting, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made no substantive progress either.
We still lack a concrete, costly signal that Pyongyang actually wants or will do what Trump and Moon keep saying they are doing.
This has not stopped Trump or South Korean president Moon Jae-in from speaking as if substantive movement has occurred. Trump has repeatedly said on Twitter and sympathetic media (read: Fox) that the North Korean problem is either over or improving, that he has a great relationship with Kim, and so on. Moon has spoken similarly, saying repeatedly that Kim wants denuclearisation when Kim has only vaguely hinted at this himself.
In fact, North Korea has still not surrendered any warheads, missiles, or launchers. We still lack a concrete, costly signal that Pyongyang actually wants or will do what Trump and Moon keep saying they are doing.
Stepping back from this magical realism should be the first step for a better second summit. The analyst community can see that North Korea has not really moved on the strategic issues, creating a widening and increasingly weird dissonance with reality, as, for example, when Trump enthusiasts threw around the idea last year that Trump should win a Nobel Prize.
Far better would be, one, a focus on limited deliverables which are actually possible, and two, to prepare for this meeting far better than last year’s throw-together-at-the-last-minute made-for-TV spectacle. One obvious step forward would be for North Korea to finally give us a list or inventory of its weapons. The refusal to provide that has halted efforts since Singapore, and not demanding that as a price for the Singapore meeting itself was a huge missed opportunity.
The North Koreans will presumably ask for a price for an inventory. It is too late to use the prestige of a POTUS-meet itself as a trade. Trump must actually give the North something, most likely sanctions relief or simply cash.
Securing this basic declaration of weapons and platforms – ideally, the number nuclear warheads, missiles, and missile launchers, plus biological chemical stockpiles – would unlock the second step to a better summit – namely some specific, concrete trades.
Once we know what the North Koreans have (or at least claim they have), we can then begin the debate on what we should give them in exchange for what they have. There are many possible modalities here. Rumours are floating that Trump might offer a US troop withdrawal from South Korea as a bargaining chip. That is a huge giveaway. If United States Forces Korea (USFK) is really in play, Trump should secure a huge counter-concession for that – namely a fair chunk of North Korea’s nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
Far more likely is a more limited swap, because giving up USFK for dozens (?) of warheads would require a level of strategic trust between the US and North Korea than exists at moment. USFK’s proposed departure would also activate enormous bureaucratic and popular resistance in South Korea and the US. Neither Trump nor Moon have laid the groundwork for such an enormous step.
A better, easier place to start would be offering sanctions relief in exchange for a few nuclear warheads or the introduction of international inspectors. This is substantive and forward progress, but not so dramatic as to be unlikely or politically explosive.
That is just one suggested trade, but there is much the US might offer the North: sanctions relief, aid, cash handouts, a declaration formally ending the Korean war, diplomatic recognition, the removal (or retrenchment to Japan) of US air assets, and ultimately the withdrawal of US forces altogether. The trick for Trump – and Moon – is to get as much as possible from the North before giving up these bargaining chits.
Here the record of the last year is disappointing. Trump markets himself as a wheeler-and-dealer, but he has not managed to actually claw much out of the North. Nor has Moon. Much of this is likely due to the haste of 2018’s détente. Trump agreed to go to Singapore just weeks before the event, and he did no preparation. He winged it and predictably walked away with almost nothing. This second summit was also announced with almost no preparation time, and Trump will almost certainly not ready himself meaningfully this time either. Trump does not read or pay attention to his briefings, and he watches far too much TV. So who knows how he will respond when he meets Kim?
Moon is better on this score of course. He takes the process far more seriously than Trump, and he has put a lot of thought and energy into the North Korean issue in his career. That said, he has precious little to show for all the dramatic talk of a “new era” and a “new future of peace” coming from his administration. Despite an extraordinary rhetorical rehabilitation of North and extensive infrastructural and financial outreach to the North, the North still has not done much. Its gestures have mostly been token humanitarian – Korean War MIA remains returns or North-South family reunions.
So the negotiations over the North Korean nuclear program have still not started in earnest. Much of this essay could have been written ten months ago. We are still waiting, on the North Korean side, for an offer which puts their nukes and missiles seriously in play. And on the American side, we are still waiting for serious discussion of what the US and South are willing to concede.
Much has been floated, but no formal, programmatic speech from either Trump or Moon has yet been laid laying the contours of a deal. So yet again before a Trump-Kim summit, we are winging it.