The true test of the Trump-Kim summit is what comes next

The true test of the Trump-Kim summit is what comes next
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After a historic summit with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un that prioritized pageantry over substance, U.S. President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE declared an end to the North Korean nuclear threat. His premature victory celebration is unsurprising — but while it is too soon to declare the meeting a success, it is also too early to write it off as a failure.  

The summit document is mediocre at best, but it remains be seen if the Trump administration can leverage momentum from the meeting to jump start a meaningful process that actually reduces the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

A key first step in follow-up negotiations must be to hammer out the details of what “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” constitutes, so that ambiguity does not jeopardize the negotiating process.

The danger of vague, ambiguous language in the summit document is already apparent. U.S. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Trump confirms he authorized Rand Paul to negotiate with Iran Trump: 'We already started' talks to get A$AP Rocky home from Sweden MORE said in his June 13 press conference that “verifiable” is implicit in summit document’s reference to “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” But the odds are that North Korea will not see it that way, and in the past Pyongyang has used differences of interpretation to derail agreements and go their own way. In 2012, North Korea claimed that satellite launches (SLVs) were not prohibited under the so-called Leap Day deal and went ahead with such a launch in April. The U.S. said satellite launches were covered, even though SLVs were not explicitly mentioned, and the deal died.


The long-standing U.S. policy, complete, verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear program, that Pompeo said June 11 is the “only outcome that the U.S. will accept”, rightly sets a high bar, and the Trump administration should not back away from it when seeking agreement on the definition. “Irreversible” will not possible for every element of program – you can’t always put the genie back in the bottle, particularly when it comes to human knowledge about nuclear weapons – but North Korea must agree to a process that is comprehensive and, most importantly, verifiable.

But while the agreed upon substance of the denuclearization definition is critical, the label is not. If North Korea objects to the U.S. terminology of complete verifiable, irreversible dismantlement, or CVID, but is willing to put down on paper a definition of “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” that meets the U.S. standard of what’s necessary for a comprehensive, verifiable, agreement, Washington can cede the term without lowering exceptions. But an “understanding” is not enough. If it is not on paper, there is a risk North Korea’s “understanding” may shift.

Another lesson from the summit is that the United States must proceed with greater caution when it comes to putting incentives on the table for North Korea. The Trump administration’s recognition that the U.S. security guarantees must go hand-in-hand with concrete steps by North Korea to reduce the threat posed by its nuclear program is positive. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about put security on the table. And thus far, by announcing an complete halt to U.S.-South Korean military exercises at the summit, and calling them by North Korea’s term of “war games” Trump has chosen the wrong way.

Alterations to the military exercises can and should be put on the table. Unlike the nuclear negotiations with Iran, sanctions relief is not the primary carrot that the United States can put on the table. North Korea said in May that the condition for denuclearization “is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States.”

The U.S. sent a signal to North Korea about its willingness to negotiate and take steps to address Pyongyang’s security concerns when Washington suspended joint military drills in the lead up to the 1994 Agreed Framework and during the first few years of its implementation. But Trump’s surprise announcement suspending U.S.-South Korean military exercises undercut future negotiations and the failure to act in concert with South Korea was a snub to a key U.S. ally.

Going forward, it is critical that the Trump administration walks the fine line of offering reciprocal actions in return for concrete steps by North Korea to halt and roll back its nuclear program, while not giving up too many cards too quickly, or the United States will not retain enough leverage to stay the course.

One summit meeting was never going to “solve” the North Korean nuclear crisis. A comprehensive, verifiable denuclearization agreement will be long term process. The critical question is whether or not the Trump administration can capitalize on the momentum of the summit and kick off follow-up negotiations that lead to concrete, verifiable steps from North Korea that reduces — and ultimately roll backs — its nuclear weapons program. Then we will be able to judge if the summit was a success, or just another instance when North Korea committed to denuclearization and failed to follow through.

Kelsey Davenport is the director for nonproliferation policy at the independent, nonpartisan Arms Control Association.