How to ensure a successful second Trump-Kim summit

It seems the train has left the station — and no, I am not talking about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s choo-choo ride to China to powwow with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In fact, Kim’s recent visit to Beijing only further proves that history once again is about to be made in Northeast Asia, as all signs point to a second high-stakes summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE, most likely this time in Vietnam.

But what sort of history will they make this around time? Many experts — and, at the time, myself included — panned the summit as nothing more than a spectacle that gave undue stature on a rogue regime that is run by a man who more resembles Michael Corleone than a global statesman.


That is where the critics have it all wrong — and I admit, where I had it wrong.

Now is the time to acknowledge a hard truth that should serve as the foundation of a lasting settlement on the Korean Peninsula. We must resolve ourselves to the fact that trying to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons must be part of a much larger, multi-year process of building trust, of trading concessions, of slowly building diplomatic contacts and reducing tensions in areas that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. And, in fact, this is the only path the North will accept, as they keep telling us.

Accepting such a formulation is not appeasement, cowardice or foolhardy; it’s recognizing that North Korea will not hand over its nuclear weapons until it feels secure enough that there is little-to-no danger of unseating the Kim regime. We would be wise to remember the Kim family’s obsession with its own security, since it will stop at nothing to ensure it holds onto power — even if that means doing things that are criminal.

If we accept such ideas as the basis of a new relationship with Pyongyang, one could foresee the creation of a stable peace regime where there is little chance of a nuclear war and the North has incentive to slowly relegate its nuclear program to the ash heap of history.

There is, of course, a second tough truth we also need to acknowledge: None of this will be easy to implement, and the chances of failure are high. History shows us that when bitter rivals — especially those who have been at each other’s throats for decades — seek a new beginning, there is no guarantee that positive change will occur. Both Kim and Trump will need to convince global public opinion that a second meeting will truly change an adversarial relationship.


So what things will both men need, in terms of deliverables, to label such a summit a success? For Kim, his goal is simple: To leave the summit with a sense of security — and that means economic as well as military security. Kim must leave feeling, at the very least, that Washington will not seek to overthrow his regime, that sanctions will slowly be peeled off if he is willing to slowly eliminate his nuclear weapons program, and that there is no more state of war on the peninsula.

Being able to return to Pyongyang with such deliverables — or, at the very least, having a roadmap to achieve such actions — would give Kim the political leverage back home to deliver on his side of the bargain and not lose credibility with North Korean military leaders and top party officials who will oppose any détente.

For Trump, success comes down to one word: progress. Washington must be able to show it can convince Pyongyang to make some sort of positive step towards denuclearization that changes the media narrative that Trump is being played for a fool — something that could, at some point, trigger his anger and restart the rhetoric of 2017.

Taking all of this into account, the outlines of a bargain to be signed at the second summit are clear. North Korea would agree to stop making any more fissile material or building any more missiles of any kind, and would formally agree to a ban on any further missile or nuclear weapons tests. In exchange, the United States and South Korea would agree to stop deploying any military platform on or near the Korean Peninsula that could be used to deliver nuclear weapons in an attack on the North.

Additionally, a sentence in the agreement could do more to drive peace than anything else: recognition that the Korean War is over and that all parties to that conflict should work toward a permanent peace treaty.

All of that would make history and everyone could claim a win. Now, some will say such a deal is not bold enough, that it does not do enough to remove the threat of Kim’s nuclear weapons. I would argue that this is a problem we can only chip away at over time, and that the surest way to bring us back to the brink of war is to demand unrealistic concessions from either side. If we are patient and understand that a problem left unsolved for decades will take time to solve, then we have all the foresight we need to arrive at a viable solution.

Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.