President Trump hasn’t said when or where he’ll hold his potential summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and there’s still a chance it won’t happen at all.
That hasn’t done anything to stop the flood of news suggesting the two men might make history. Kim is suggesting he would be open to one day giving up his nukes, while Trump’s team is reportedly hoping for a “big bang” agreement that would settle the North Korean nuclear issue for good. South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggested, just this weekend, that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in all of this.
It’s tempting to conclude from all this that we’re just one meeting away from bringing an end to the decades-old North Korean nuclear crisis. But no credible expert thinks that’s possible. Nor do experts think there’s much of a chance that Kim will ever agree to completely give up the nuclear arsenal that serves as such a powerful deterrent to an American attack.
So this raises a vital question: What does Kim really want from the meeting, and what is he willing to give in return?
It’s possible that he wants to trade relatively mild concessions, like an indefinite freeze on ballistic missile testing, in exchange for sanctions relief or some kind of foreign aid. It’s possible that he’s playing a long game and trying to weaken — and eventually break —Washington’s alliance with Seoul. And it’s possible that he might simply want the propaganda coup of sitting down with a US president as an equal.
Given the black box that is North Korea, it could be any one of those things, or a combination, or none of the above.
And that’s the problem: The Trump administration is going all in on the potential summit — with the president praising Kim as “very honorable” and musing about the “great celebration” he’d hold after striking a deal — without appearing to understand that the most Kim might be willing to give would be less than the minimum Trump would ultimately be willing to accept.
The upshot? The Trump administration is racing toward a meeting without a clear sense of what Kim actually wants, and so could end up doing more harm by than good by sitting down. Kim’s intentions (and how well Trump plays around them) will determine whether the summit leads to a deal — or goes down in flames.
What might Kim actually want?
Let’s be clear: No one outside the White House thinks Kim is going to hand over his nuclear weapons, even if he’s said he might. It’s possible — anything is! — but extremely unlikely. Nukes are just so vital to North Korea’s military and diplomatic strategy that it’s difficult to imagine the North ever handing them over.
The simplest explanation for why Kim is agreeing to a sit-down isn’t that he’s had a change of heart about his nuclear program. It’s that he, like many other world leaders, craves status and respect.
North Korea has long wanted recognition as a nuclear power and a major player on the world stage — and has long seen a one-on-one meeting between its leader and a US president as a way of attaining it. Kim sitting down with Trump is, in and of itself, a significant domestic propaganda coup and a demonstration to the world of North Korea’s strength.
Another possible goal is to extract some kind of economic concession from Trump. One of Kim’s major priorities as leader has been economic modernization. He has allowed North Korea’s state-owned enterprises to compete in something resembling capitalist markets and allowed major privately run shopping centers to flourish. The idea is to make North Korea’s economy something closer to China’s than the pseudo-Stalinist disaster it’s been for several decades.
So far, though, the steps he’s taken have been fairly modest, and North Korea’s economy is still tiny: South Korea’s GDP is 88 times the North’s. The kind of rapid, Chinese-style growth (10 percent GDP growth per year) simply has not happened — in part, though not close to entirely, because international sanctions have cut off Pyongyang’s access to foreign markets.
In the past, North Korea has leveraged its nuclear program in attempts to get help with the problems stemming from its international isolation. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, would often alternate between periods of nuclear advancement and concession as a deliberate strategy: You appear threatening to the world and use that scary pose to extract economic concessions from the international community (like food aid) in exchange for backing down.
So it could be that the younger Kim is taking a page from his father’s book: putting some limited nuclear concession, like an indefinite freeze on nuclear weapons testing, on the table in exchange for sanctions relief that would juice his moribund economy. Kim explicitly hinted at this in an April speech in which he declared that “the nuclear test site has done its job” and suggested he will begin putting in more work on the economy.
“By declaring that North Korea has achieved its state nuclear force, it frees up resources and attention to focus on the economy,” says Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute. “Kim knows he will need to repair his international image and relations with the international community.”
A third, particularly devious, possibility is that Kim is actually attempting to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. Moon, the South Korean president, is a former human rights lawyer who has long advocated a dovish approach to Pyongyang. Trump, by contrast, has long been belligerent toward the North — as the past year of “fire and fury” shows — and is only a recent convert to the idea that negotiations could work.
It could be that Kim’s buddying up to the South is a way to improve his relations with Moon in advance of a summit with Trump that he’s already assuming will be a failure. Kim could be planning to exit talks in a huff, blaming the American president’s inflexibility for their collapse — and hoping the South Korean president and public would take his side. That could lead to a rift between Pyongyang’s two biggest enemies, something the North has always wanted.
“He could attend the summit with President Trump, and after an hour walk out and announce internationally that Trump wants war, not peace, and he can’t deal with someone who wants war,” says Bruce Bennett, a North Korea expert at the RAND Corporation. “I think there are a number of people in South Korea who would probably believe him if he said that now.”
It’s hard to be sure which, if any, of these theories is correct. It could be that all of them are: that Kim wants recognition, economic concessions, and a Washington-Seoul split — and is hoping that he can accomplish one, two, or all three through negotiations.
But the point is that there are a number of plausible objectives Kim could further by reaching out to South Korea and sitting down with Trump short of giving up his entire nuclear arsenal. And it’s more than likely that at least one of those is the driving factor here.
What this means for Trump’s talks
This doesn’t mean the Trump-Kim summit is pointless. A deal that involves trading sanctions relief for verifiable restrictions on any further North Korean nuclear progress would be good for both sides. Kim gets the growth he wants, while the nuclear threat to the US homeland and to vital American allies like Japan and South Korea is kept at a relatively low level.
“Kim has a lot of flexibility in denuclearization talks. [He could] give up key parts of the program — especially those related to testing and development — early on in a negotiation process,” says Town. “Even if we don’t get to the ideal end state [of North Korea without nuclear weapons], the further we can go down that path, the better it will be for everyone involved.”
But the issue is that the Trump administration doesn’t seem to be looking for this kind of incremental progress.
Multiple leading officials, including the president, have stated that their goal is complete denuclearization — meaning North Korea getting rid of its entire arsenal. Trump hasn’t been clear on how exactly he plans to get there, but White House officials have said they favor the “big bang” approach — in which there will be no concessions without North Korea going much further than a testing freeze.
“When the president says that he will not make the mistakes of the past, that means the U.S. will not be making substantial concessions, such as lifting sanctions, until North Korea has substantially dismantled its nuclear programs,” one senior Trump official told the Wall Street Journal.
National Security Adviser John Bolton has even compared the situation to Libya, whose dictator Muammar Qaddafi gave up pretty much his entire nuclear program in exchange for warmer relations with the United States in 2003. The problem, from North Korea’s point of view, is that the US turned around and toppled him just eight years later, backing the Arab Spring rebels who overthrew and killed Qadaffi in 2011.
Given Trump’s aggressive national security team — Bolton has also said that the only thing worth negotiating with the North is which port they’d ship their nukes out of — it’s easy to imagine Trump coming into the meeting with sky-high expectations that simply won’t be met.
“The summit is a great opportunity, but there’s a significant risk that Trump’s expectations, which are being influenced by national security adviser and engagement skeptic John Bolton, are dangerously unrealistic,” says Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.
Two weeks ago, Trump said that he’d walk out of the talks if they weren’t “fruitful” and then take some kind of unspecified action in response. “Something will happen,” he said, ominously.
It’s hard to know what that could be, but it’s very easy to imagine a mismatched negotiation — where Kim wants something limited and Trump wants something huge — leading to a return to the kind of tit-for-tat threats and belligerency that made last year so scary.
That possibility is why it’s so vital to be clear-eyed about what Kim wants. Trump deserves credit for taking a chance on diplomacy with North Korea, especially when his national security adviser has openly called for war. But negotiations are hard and, if handled poorly, could end up backfiring. A pie-in-the-sky process, one disconnected from the reality of the North Korean regime, helps nobody — and could even make things worse.
It would be wrong to assume that the United States has North Korea cornered and can simply dictate to Kim. North Korea is, like it or not, a significant nuclear power — and it won’t give up the strength that comes with that status easily. Yet the White House seems to believe it might.
Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, has a blunt warning about what could happen if a summit takes place with the two sides still far apart on the future of Kim’s nuclear program.
“It invites a train wreck,” he said.