Things are looking good for an historic U.S.-North Korea nuclear summit in May. Last week, at a surprise meeting in China, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un confirmed his intention to meet with President Donald Trump, and Trump tweeted afterward that he will “Look forward to our meeting!” Kim has also agreed to meet with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in on April 27. Expectations are starting to mount that talks can help diffuse the nuclear crisis and avoid a catastrophic war.
But unless we are careful, high expectations may become our worst enemy.
As much as we all might like to see such an outcome, this is exactly the wrong way to look at what might be achieved at the summit. In fact, such unrealistic expectations are a recipe for failure that would likely put the United States and North Korea back on the path to war. Given Bolton’s past statements in support of military action against the North, this could be what he wants.
But President Trump, who visited South Korea and Japan in November, must realize that war with North Korea would be a disaster for the region and beyond. Bolton’s arguments for “striking North Korea first” would not only fail to eliminate the North’s nuclear arsenal, but also put the millions of people living across the border — including hundreds of thousands of Americans — at immediate risk of a retaliatory attack.
Instead, the White House must set realistic goals for the summit that allow both Trump and Kim to declare victory. After all, the talks will succeed only if both sides get something that they want. Trump can land the historic deal he’s always wanted, with the North committing to denuclearization. Here’s how:
- Make sure the meeting takes place. Given Trump’s impulsive nature, Bolton’s history on this issue, and the hawkishness of Secretary of State nominee Mike PompeoMike PompeoChristie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group America needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Harris to hold fundraiser for McAuliffe ahead of Virginia governor's race MORE, it will be nothing short of a miracle for the meeting to happen at all.
- Recognize that this is the start of a process, not the end. Establish a plan for future meetings and a series of phases, eventually culminating in the denuclearization of North Korea. This will not happen overnight.
- Freeze the North’s nuclear and missile testing program while talks continue. We must ensure that the North is not using the talks to “stall for time” while it continues with its testing program. Fortunately, such a testing freeze is easy to verify remotely. But the testing freeze must be formalized and clarified. For example, what types of missiles are covered? What about space launch vehicles? How long will the freeze last?
- Go home without insulting anyone.
That is enough for the first meeting. In fact, this would be a huge success. Trump could rightly say that he had won agreement from the North to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. But much work would remain to be done.
Some will say this is not enough, demanding additional commitments backed up by intrusive inspections inside North Korea and wanting the North to hand over its nukes on a silver platter. But let’s recall where we were just a few months ago. The North was testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, leaping ever closer to a capability to reach the United States. Meanwhile, the Trump administration was seriously considering a so-called “bloody nose” attack. The testing program has now been halted, and threats of war have quieted. But if the talks collapse, what will the North do? Go back to testing — and the White House war drums will begin to beat again.
We need realistic expectations for the first meeting and for the process that follows. The North will not “denuclearize” right away, but it can agree to a phased process to get there. Here are the key steps:
- Prohibit the transfer of nuclear weapons, materials, and missiles. The North must not be allowed to share its nuclear or missile technology with others.
- Cap nuclear material production. After freezing its testing program, North Korea would freeze the production of nuclear materials, thereby capping the number of bombs it could build. This would require stringent verification measures.
- Rollback warhead stocks. As international inspectors are able to monitor and verify the suspension of nuclear material production, the United States and North Korea would be able to move into the phase of dismantling the North’s arsenal of weapons.
Make no mistake, this is a huge lift. Each of these steps will take time, skillful negotiation, and, most importantly, the will of the United States and North Korea to succeed. A Trump-Kim summit would go a long way to set denuclearization in motion.
Of course, the United States and its allies will need to take steps to match North Korea’s commitments, such as relaxing sanctions, improving relations, formally ending the Korean War, scaling back military exercises, and possibly withdrawing U.S. troops from the South. But these can be phased too. If the North stops, the U.S. stops. If the North walks away, the U.S. can walk away.
And, as Kim Jong Un’s unexpected visit to Beijing indicates, the wheels are turning. Meeting with President Xi Jinping, Kim reportedly confirmed for the first time his intention to hold a summit and address denuclearization “if south Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”
President Trump displayed his bold leadership style by agreeing to meet with Kim. Now Trump needs to focus on “the art of the deal” by carefully crafting a phased process with the North. But if Trump expects the moon in May, he will have wasted a golden opportunity to succeed where his predecessors did not. And Bolton might just get the war he’s written so much about.
Tom Z. Collina is policy director and Catherine Killough is the Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C.