President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un later today will be the most dramatic diplomatic moment of his drama-filled presidency so far.
Trump will meet with Kim on Monday night at a swanky Singapore hotel for the first-ever face-to-face meeting between sitting American and North Korean leaders.
And the stakes are high: Just last year, the two leaders were openly threatening each other with possible nuclear war. Tonight, they’ll sit down to discuss the possible dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
The meeting is rife with promise and peril, experts say. On the one hand, Trump and Kim could agree to a long-term deal where Kim slowly dismantles his nuclear program in exchange for ever-greater financial incentives. On the other hand, either leader might conclude the other is disingenuous and scuttle any future negotiations.
In effect, Trump and Kim could either strike a deal for peace or put both countries back on the path toward war — underscoring just how risky this gamble really is for Trump.
“The summit could certainly be one of the most high-wire moments because it will require President Trump to make split-second decisions and judgments with the leader of a country that has vexed the United States for the last 70 years,” says Frank Aum, a North Korea expert at the US Institute of Peace think tank.
The problem at the heart of the Trump-Kim summit
To understand why experts worry about the meeting, you need to understand one fundamental issue: Both sides can’t agree on what to do about North Korea’s nuclear program.
Basically, the United States wants North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. That means Pyongyang would have to destroy reactors and buildings, give away documents with designs and calculations, and hand off missiles that can carry nuclear bombs to America.
But Kim has no incentive whatsoever to agree to any of that. According to the Pentagon and the CIA, North Korea sees its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against foreign invasion, particularly by the US, and therefore has no impetus to curb its nuclear program.
Kim reportedly worries about what happened to Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s former dictator, in 2011. With American help, the leader was captured by anti-Qaddafi rebels, who then sodomized and killed him. Had Libya kept its nuclear weapons, it’s entirely possible the US would not have intervened during the country’s civil war and Qaddafi would not have met such an end.
Kim likely wants to avoid that outcome, which means he’s unlikely to hand over his nuclear materials.
Still, the Trump administration has repeatedly signaled its hope that Kim changes his mind. “I have been very clear that President Trump and the United States’ objective is very consistent and well known: the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a May 31 press conference. “If Kim Jong Un denuclearizes, there is a brighter path for North Korea.”
While it’s obviously unclear whether Kim will agree to dismantle his nuclear program, some experts think a meeting will help Trump gauge Kim’s seriousness. “The summit and associated diplomacy is necessary to confirm whether Kim has made a strategic decision to denuclearize,” Anthony Ruggiero, a North Korea expert at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank, tells me. “That should be the standard we use to judge the success of the summit.”
But others say having the meeting is a bad idea. “Trump has already lost. Kim gets all the pageantry of a summit with the president of the United States without having to make serious commitments,” says Catherine Dill, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Of course, what matters most is what Trump and Kim discuss and potentially agree to.
How the Trump-Kim summit might play out
Experts say there are four broad scenarios that could play out when the US and North Korean leaders meet.
1) Both sides agree to a long-term process for curbs on North Korea’s nuclear program.
Few really believe Pyongyang would willingly give up its arsenal, but there’s a chance that the US and North Korea can agree on a slow plan where each side offers up at least some concessions.
That could include North Korea dismantling some of its intercontinental ballistic missile frames, fully disclosing the locations of its nuclear materials, and even moving those materials outside the country, says Abigail Grace, a former National Security Council staffer working on North Korea in the Trump administration.
“Maybe we can get to good in two years,” Grace says. “If there’s no significant commitment to dismantlement by North Korea early on, negotiations could fall apart by January or February.”
2) The meeting is a propaganda win for Kim that damages the US position.
There’s a risk that “the summit is just a TV stunt that is all stagecraft and no substance,” says Aum, the US Institute of Peace expert. “Kim would gain the prestige and propaganda benefit of meeting with the sitting US president, while lowering the international support for sanctions and not conceding anything of significance.”
The White House and Congress have placed sanctions on North Korea, all while leading a UN campaign to financially punish Pyongyang for its nuclear and ballistic missile activities. But there’s concern that the high-profile diplomatic push might cause other countries — primarily China and Russia — to relax their pressure on North Korea.
3) “The temperature rises just as quickly as it falls and we go back to 2017.”
That’s what Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, says is another possible scenario.
Last year, Trump promised to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea if it kept threatening the US and its allies. Kim, in response, vowed to “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire” for openly talking about destroying North Korea.
Both leaders could restart the war of words if either Trump or Kim thinks the summit was a failure. Here’s what Victor Cha, a North Korea expert whom Trump almost nominated as his ambassador to South Korea, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 5:
In this scenario, negotiations break down, North Korea returns to its pattern of behavior in 2017 when it conducted 20 ballistic missile tests and one hydrogen bomb test, the United States ramps up military exercising and pre-positioning of assets, the “fire and fury” rhetoric heats up again, and the potential for armed conflict, even nuclear conflict, becomes very real.
That is, to put it mildly, scary. But it’s not as scary as the fourth scenario.
4) The United States and North Korea go to war.
Under this scenario, the Trump administration pursues “denuclearization by force,” says Narang, “using the failed summit as evidence that diplomacy is futile.” But, he notes, “that would mean attacking a nuclear weapons power.”
There’s a good case to make that Trump has had the most success of any US president on the North Korea issue. That success has earned him a historic meeting — but Cha told lawmakers last week that a meeting is not enough.
“A summit is not a strategy, and a summit without a strategy is dangerous,” he said.