Another Trump-Kim summit has both dangers and opportunities

Another Trump-Kim summit has both dangers and opportunities
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A second Trump-Kim summit is imminent, with President TrumpDonald John TrumpSecret Service members who helped organize Pence Arizona trip test positive for COVID-19: report Trump administration planning pandemic office at the State Department: report Iran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report MORE tweeting that he looks forward to seeing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the “near future” after the fourth trip by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoIran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report To support Hong Kong's freedom, remember America's revolution Senate passes sanctions bill targeting China over Hong Kong law MORE to Pyongyang this past weekend. All sides are hopeful that a second summit will revive negotiations that have stalled in recent months, and yield results for their respective interests. Washington wants North Korea to take concrete steps toward actual denuclearization, Pyongyang seeks sanctions relief and a declaration to end the Korean War, and Seoul wants continued momentum toward a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

While another summit could inject energy into a process that is currently at risk of falling apart, a second Trump-Kim meeting should be used to endorse a clearly defined roadmap that ends with complete North Korean denuclearization, a peace treaty, and normalized relations with the United States, along with a conflict resolution mechanism to get through bumps along the road ahead. Anything less is likely to result in only a short lived diplomatic boost, and ultimately diminish prospects for resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis through diplomacy once and for all.


In fact, the hastily arranged Singapore summit and the vague joint declaration that resulted demonstrate precisely why a diplomatic process that lacks a substantive foundation of detailed understandings is bound to collapse due to mismatched expectations. By prematurely meeting with Kim before laying such groundwork, the Trump administration effectively lost the leverage it had built through a maximum pressure campaign which had caught the attention of North Korea with the critical and unprecedented support of Beijing.

Now armed with a renewed relationship with China, strong support from South Korea, and an American president who seems eager to declare victory, Pyongyang seems to have calculated that it can reap the economic and diplomatic benefits of engagement before making tough choices about its nuclear program. While North Korea has taken some positive steps since the Singapore summit, including pausing its nuclear and missile tests, destroying a nuclear test site, and offering to dismantle Yongbyon, which is its only publicly declared nuclear facility, none of these concessions have involved reducing its existing nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, intelligence reports suggest that North Korea is continuing to build nuclear weapons even as it negotiates, casting some serious doubt on whether Pyongyang truly intends to denuclearize.

South Korean progressives argue that rather than asking whether Kim is willing to disarm today, trust must be built so that Kim feels comfortable enough to give up his nuclear weapons tomorrow. In his most recent trip to the United States, President Moon Jae In urged Washington to take steps such as declaring an end to the Korean War, establishing a liaison office in Pyongyang, providing humanitarian aid, and exchanging business delegations and art troupes as means to reassure North Korea and win its trust. While none of the measures proposed by Seoul are intrinsically objectionable, they must be sequenced as part of a defined process that ends with North Korean denuclearization and genuine peace.

Contrary to the arguments of the Moon administration that the United States has “nothing to lose” by signing an end of war declaration since it could be reversed, the fact is that once such a declaration is made, it will inevitably set into motion larger debates about the role of American troops and assets in the Korean Peninsula, the purpose of the alliance with South Korea, and other issues that cannot simply be forced back into the bottle. While these are all subjects that should be discussed in preparation for the day when a peace treaty can be signed, piecemeal concessions that are not firmly tied to North Korea taking steps toward complete denuclearization will surely cause regret and a return to instability.

There is no better way to build trust than by laying out clear goals and a mutually agreed upon pathway to get there. Since not all details can be hammered out in advance, an institutionalized process for resolving disagreements along the way is necessary to lend a measure of stability to the challenging process ahead. If Kim is sincere about bringing change to his country, he should find drawing up a concrete roadmap with commitments from both sides reassuring rather than threatening.

Finally, as part of creating a sustainable diplomatic track, the Trump administration should consult Congress on what minimum requirements will need to be met to normalize relations with North Korea. It should also discuss these issues with Pyongyang in advance to avoid disappointment down the road. South Korean and Chinese endorsement of the roadmap should also be sought to dampen temptation by North Korea to exploit regional divisions to its advantage. Only after the groundwork for all of these pieces are in place should a second summit be used to seal the deal. Otherwise, we may find ourselves back at another stalemate, but with less enthusiasm and goodwill to restart negotiations on all sides.

Patricia M. Kim is an adjunct fellow with the Asia Program and the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.