How Trump lost his leverage in the North Korea negotiations

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A chief reason that the U.S.-North Korea summit plan deteriorated in recent days is that the Trump administration has pressured Kim Jong-Un to acknowledge in advance of the summit that he agrees to eliminate all of his nuclear weapons.

Until recently, the White House called for complete, verifiable, and irreversible” denuclearization of North Korea. It’s no surprise that the fate of the summit is in question; calling for one side in a negotiation to agree to completely denuclearize prior to the summit is like calling for your opponent in a chess game to acknowledge in advance that he has lost the game and you have won.

{mosads}If North Korea is ever going to agree to completely denuclearize, then presumably that agreement will arise in the context of a negotiation and not before one takes place. And presumably if they do agree to completely denuclearize, then they are going to get a lot of economic and political benefits for doing so.

But insisting that North Korea say prior to the summit that they will denuclearize really puts the cart before the horse for the administration. How could they adopt that posture when that very issue is the primary issue to be negotiated?

Trump has insisted for the last year that North Korea must completely denuclearize, though the administration appears to have softened its stance when the summit itself was put in danger. And while many believe that this is an unrealistic goal, it is the president’s prerogative to set an ambitious goal.

What is unrealistic, however, is to presume that Chairman Kim will agree to denuclearize prior to the summit itself: Again, the point of the summit is for both sides to do their best to achieve their own goals. How can you set a condition of negotiating with someone that they give you the main thing that the negotiation will be about? The other party has already lost all its leverage.

Effectively, this pre-game squabble occured because Trump wants a deal before the deal itself is to be negotiated. This demand also makes the concept of the summit meaningless, since it is part of the concept of a negotiation that both sides negotiate with one another about the issues that divide them. Thus if one side demands that the other side concede the primary issue in dispute, then the very idea of a negotiation is useless.

If Kim has to agree to denuclearize prior to the summit, then the only thing left to negotiate is what he gets for doing this. There are indeed a range of benefits he might receive, but it is really a matter of details, of degree, if that’s what the summit is going to be about.

Where we are now, then, is where things should be. Kim has refused to concede that point in advance, and President Trump has to decide whether he will negotiate with Kim on this point.

All of the talk about the tone of the comments on the part of the North Koreans as being unacceptable is a distraction from the basic issue at play: Either the United States agrees to negotiate with the North Koreans or not. If we insist that they agree in advance of the negotiation that they will denuclearize, then they have every right to balk at this demand.

Every president has to undergo a learning process when it comes to the job, even if they have served as a governor or a senator. President Trump deserves credit for motivating Kim to move in the direction of negotiations. Sanctions and threatening language are the stick in the effort to move Kim toward a negotiation. But diplomacy requires a carrot, and that is more than telling your opponent they have to give up what they prize most before the meeting takes place.

Dave Anderson is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He is also the author of “Youth04: Young Voters, the Internet, and Political Power” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) and co-editor of “The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). He has taught at The George Washington University, the University of Cincinnati, and Johns Hopkins University. Contact him at

Tags Dispute resolution Donald Trump Negotiation North Korea Nuclear weapons

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