America cannot allow summit to trump substance on North Korea

America cannot allow summit to trump substance on North Korea
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It’s time for a reboot of President TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE and Kim Jong Un’s “will they or won’t they?” reality TV show. The obsessive focus on cancellations and signs of renewal might be high on drama, but compulsively binge watching the summit saga misses the forest for the trees. A meeting is just one part of the most important story: Will the United States actually make diplomatic progress in addressing the threats from North Korea?

Since Trump took office, there have been countless plot twists on North Korea. For over a year, he undermined diplomatic efforts, contemplated military action, threatened to reign “fire and fury” upon the isolated country, and packaged an extensive economic sanctions campaign only to have a change of heart and agree to meet with Kim. Following the summit announcement, the path to the summit seemed almost too clear.

While analysts expressed skepticism over whether Trump and Kim were on the same page about denuclearization and levels of preparation, Trump kept upping the ante, praising the brutal dictator, and heralding an end to the Korean War after Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae In. Kim vowed to stop missile testing, dismantled a nuclear testing site in a symbolic gesture, stated he wouldn’t object to a U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, and released three American hostages.

Preparations finally hit a roadblock on May 16, when North Korea released two statements threatening to pull out of the summit in response to national security adviser John Bolton advocating for a unilateral “Libya” model of denuclearization and joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

On May 24, North Korean official Choe Son Hui issued another statement that insulted Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence: Mueller report confirms 'no collusion, no obstruction' Melania Trump, Karen Pence say they're ready to serve four more years in White House The Turkish rupture could cause a fissure in NATO MORE for bringing up the Libya model and alluded to a potential summit pullout. Later that day, Trump wrote a letter to Kim cancelling the summit. A day later, Trump said the summit could be on. In the days since, the White House is acting as though what it calls the “expected summit” is on, as negotiators pick up the pace.

Will the summit happen? Will it be on schedule? While these are the questions that everybody is asking, they’re not the most important ones. What really matters is whether progress is made in securing the interests of America and its allies while reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. If a summit is part of that process, great. If not, that’s fine too, as long diplomacy continues to move forward. Leadership summits are just one piece in the diplomatic toolkit.

The frictions leading up to a possible summit, and even the cancellation of the summit, should be viewed as bumps in the road rather than insurmountable barriers. Negotiations inherently involve a give and take process as two parties decide what they’re willing to concede to get their desired outcomes. They’re not easy, and they take work. There will be some pain along the way. If they can make it to the end, the reward will be a safer, more secure world.

Even if there is a summit, it will only be the beginning of the diplomatic process. Leadership summits are often the final celebration to seal the deal of a negotiated agreement. In this case, a meeting between Trump and Kim would be the kickoff party. They might reach a huge deal, but even if they do, agreeing to the details of its implementation after the summit is done is when the hardest part starts.

There is serious concern that not only does Trump not understand this, he doesn’t care that he doesn’t understand this. He has said that he’s the “only one that matters” when it comes to foreign policy, and he seems more interested in courting talk of a Nobel Prize than figuring out a realistic and achievable diplomatic strategy.

A summit might be good for his ratings, but it’s not the “be all end all” in improving the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, a summit that’s treated as a reality TV show is worse than no summit at all. If no substance comes out of the summit, a photo opportunity with the president of the United States is a win for the leader of North Korea. Members of Congress are encouraging diplomacy and watching closely for a good deal to which they can hold the administration accountable.

Conflating the summit with diplomacy sets up a false choice between capitulation and war, as Trump indicated in his letter to Kim. It creates a narrative that, if the summit fails to produce immediate denuclearization, which will not happen, then diplomacy has failed, so it’s time to look at military options again. The only way forward on North Korea is through diplomacy. Summit or no summit, even successful diplomacy with North Korea will be difficult, lengthy, and filled with landmines.

There will be more rhetorical outbursts from North Korea, which will likely cancel more meetings. But the United States needs to keep at it. The meetings that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS downplays North Korea's saber rattling Overnight Defense: Pompeo rejects North Korean call for him to leave negotiations | Trump talk with rebel Libyan general raises eyebrows | New setback to Taliban talks The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems face tricky balancing act after Mueller report MORE had with Kim and the U.S. team sent to negotiate with North Korea at the demilitarized zone are exactly the kinds of diplomatic engagements that will continue to be necessary if any progress is to be made.

As everyone follows the unfolding summit saga with North Korea, America must keep its eye on the ball. Will North Korea make a robust and clear commitment to get rid of its nuclear weapons? Will it account for all its weapons of mass destruction and missile programs in a verifiable way? Will it dismantle its ability to produce fissile material? Will it allow outside inspectors to have complete access to its facilities? What is the United States willing to give up in return for progress?

In any diplomacy, summit or otherwise, the United States must be looking to secure its interests and those of its allies. A continuous commitment to diplomacy is the way to best achieve that. It’s time to focus on the substance, not the summit, of negotiations with North Korea.

Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served as a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of State. Abby Bard is a research assistant at the Center for American Progress.