Hope and skepticism as America readies summit with North Korea

Hope and skepticism as America readies summit with North Korea
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CIA director Mike PompeoMike PompeoDeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Pompeo not ruling out 2024 White House bid Houthis: US sanctions prolonging war in Yemen MORE’s reported secret visit to Pyongyang has raised expectations that President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new tranche of endorsements DeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Lawmakers demand changes after National Guard troops at Capitol sickened from tainted food MORE and Kim Jong Un may actually meet in the coming months. While a summit between the two sitting leaders of the United States and North Korea would be historically unprecedented, many of the issues they will be discussing are actually well-worn territory. This has created a remarkable situation in which hope for a summit has bloomed, while there remains deep skepticism that any agreement they reach will actually resolve this decades-old crisis.

Before Kim meets with Trump, he will already have met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae In. While Kim’s meeting several weeks ago in Beijing accomplished little more than to highlight China’s still significant role in these dynamics and Kim’s ability to act on the world stage as a national leader, his forthcoming meetings with Moon and Trump promise to be far more substantive.

Indeed, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have been in close communication to coordinate their positions prior to this round of summitry. While Pompeo stated in his confirmation hearing that “no one is under any illusions that we will reach a comprehensive agreement through the president’s meeting” with Kim, South Korea has already signaled its expectations for the contours of a deal that will have three broad and interrelated components.

The first component of a deal with North Korea as outlined by Seoul would be a “peace regime,” the centerpiece of which would likely be a peace treaty that would formally end the Korean War, which has lingered on indefinite hiatus since an armistice halted fighting in 1953. While formally concluding a war that has been unofficially over for more than six decades may seem straightforward, the details are quite complicated. Seoul has received Trump’s blessing to negotiate a peace treaty, but South Korea is not actually a party to the armistice, which was signed by a North Korean general and an American general representing the United Nations.

While a formal peace treaty will likely need to include both North Korea and South Korea as well as China and the United States, an end to the armistice also has significant implications for the U.S.-South Korea alliance and American forces on the Korean Peninsula. Before a peace treaty is signed, Seoul and Pyongyang will likely need to address significant issues related to the disposition of conventional military forces along the demilitarized zone, and Washington will need to discuss with Seoul how a formal end to the war may impact their alliance.

The second component of a deal with North Korea would likely focus on denuclearization. In fact, this will likely be the top priority for Trump. While Kim has remained silent about what he may want in exchange for denuclearization, one could expect his demands to be unreasonably high. North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons for decades to both defend itself from what it sees as an outside world determined to invade and destroy the regime but also as a fundamental feature of the regime itself.

Upon taking power, Kim greatly accelerated the pace and ambition of North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing regime. Less than five months ago in December, Kim declared that North Korea had successfully completed its nuclear arsenal and would shift to mass producing its capabilities, stating that the United States “can never start a war against me and our country.” It is therefore reasonable to believe that Kim’s reported willingness to denuclearize may be something less than genuine.

The third component of an agreement with Kim would likely be the normalization relations with North Korea. Yet, it is difficult to imagine this step would even be contemplated as anything other than the final step in a long, difficult and complex process. It is difficult to imagine Washington, Seoul or Tokyo formally establishing relations with Pyongyang if it has not concluded a peace treaty, removed military forces from the demilitarized zone, and completely denuclearized. Moreover, success depends upon the myriad issues involved in each of these steps.

As Trump sits down with Kim, he will be haunted by the failures of the past. In 1991, Seoul and Pyongyang announced an agreement to reconcile, end the state of military confrontation, conclude a peace treaty, and peacefully reunify. Just a few months later, South Korea and North Korea agreed to not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.

In 1994, North Korea agreed in a formal framework to end its nuclear program in exchange for security assurances as well as economic and infrastructure inducements from the United States. In 2005, North Korea again agreed to denuclearize in a joint statement of the Six Party Talks, only to conduct its first test of a nuclear device 13 months later. Each of these agreements tried in various ways to address many of the issues described above, and in various ways, they collapsed.

Despite this record of failure, history demonstrates that striking a deal with North Korea will be the relatively easy part. The real difficulty begins after Trump and Kim meet. Even if their summit is successful, the way forward will be filled with traps and opportunities for failure as the two sides attempt to implement the agreement and verify compliance. Sequencing has in the past been incredibly difficult on this issue.

North Korea has previously been reluctant to denuclearize while the United States retains its extended nuclear deterrent to protect South Korea, yet neither Seoul nor Washington would be willing to leave South Korea unprotected by the American nuclear umbrella while North Korea retains a nuclear capability. Further, verifying North Korean compliance with a denuclearization agreement will likely require incredibly intrusive inspections. Such intrusiveness would be uncomfortable for any country, and potentially unacceptable for a country as self-isolated as North Korea.

There are good reasons why previous efforts to address this issue have failed. It was not a result of the foolishness or weakness of past leaders. It was because these are tough issues. While it makes good strategic sense to attempt to strike a deal with Kim and see if he is willing to go further than his father, it also makes good sense to plan for the potential that these talks may fail. Because at this time, all that remains after diplomatic failure is a cliff to a catastrophic military confrontation.

Abraham M. Denmark is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, where he also serves as a senior fellow at the Kissinger Institute for China and the United States. He served as deputy assistant secretary for East Asia at the U.S. Department of Defense.