The on-again, off-again summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un now appears increasingly likely to take place — but it’s not yet clear what kind of agreement, if any, the two leaders will be able to reach. North Korea has ruled out the so-called “Libya model” where it loads its nuclear program onto planes bound for the U.S. right away, with Kim saying Thursday the issue should be “solved on a stage-by-stage basis.” Trump insists that the end goal is denuclearization, but has left the door open to a phased approach. We take a look at the possible results.
Kick the Can Down the Road
The most likely outcome may be an agreement to keep talking. Such a deal would involve a lofty declaration that both sides seek peace — even a formal treaty — and a commitment to work toward the goal of ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons. Under such a deal, North Korea could announce an extended moratorium on nuclear and missile testing in exchange for modest sanctions relief. The U.S. may also want any agreement to explicitly mention shorter-range missiles so as not to jeopardize alliances with Japan and South Korea, both of which are vulnerable to attack. Kim said late last year he had obtained the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. Since then he’s unilaterally suspended nuclear and missile tests, closed the test site where the country detonated all six of its nuclear devices, and turned his focus to building the economy. “It is costless for Kim to say I am not going to do nuclear or missiles tests for now because frankly they are a stage in their cycle where they don’t need to,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on nuclear issues.
This is the biggest sticking point between the two sides. While it’s probably unrealistic for the Trump and Kim to agree on all aspects of denuclearization at their first meeting, many experts say it’s still possible to go meaningfully beyond a kick-the-can-down-the-road accord. To do so, they would need to emerge with “a clear sense of what the diplomatic pathway is” for achieving complete and verifiable denuclearization, said Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. That would include a timetable for detailed negotiations on dismantlement, verification, and implementation phases, according to Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. North Korea will be angling to hang on to the weapons “as long as possible,” he said. Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the time horizon could be a decade. Trump “seems to think it could happen within 3 months or 6 months,” she said. “Most nuclear weapons experts I talk to say it will take at least 10 years.”
North Korean Concessions
A good deal for the U.S. would eliminate or cap production of North Korea’s two classes of intercontinental ballistic missiles — the Hwasong 14 and the larger and more developed Hwasong 15 — as well as shorter-range missiles that would be used in an attack on Japan or South Korea. North Korea could also agree to limit the size of its stockpile of fissile material used for making nuclear weapons. Such a move would need to be accompanied by credible verification measures and assurances that North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant had ceased production. The facility also could be slated for eventual dismantlement. Experts say verification is the key to any lasting deal. An accord with North Korea will hinge on the degree to which Kim would allow inspectors — such as the International Atomic Energy Agency — access to its facilities to verify commitments.
Trump could offer Kim a number of immediate and tangible incentives to start getting rid of his nuclear weapons. Chief among them is relief from the tightest economic sanctions the U.S. has imposed on North Korea in decades. Trump could also reduce the number of U.S. troops in South Korea from the 28,500 currently deployed toward 22,000, the minimum allowed under an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress and confirmed on May 14. This is something Trump talked about in his election campaign. In a more modest step, the U.S. could agree to limit the size and scope of its military exercises. North Korea would likely be expected to curtail its military drills in return.
The biggest risk for the U.S. is that Trump simply concedes too much in return for too little, limiting leverage for pushing future steps toward denuclearization. For instance, North Korea would benefit from an agreement that is drawn out and involves each side making incremental concessions rather than laying out significant actions within a set timetable, Stephan Haggard, distinguished professor at the University of California-San Diego, said in a Lawfare Institute podcast in May. Past deals have fallen apart due to disputes over inspections and the delivery of promised economic aid. And implementation of any deal is likely to stretch beyond the term of Trump, who can stay in power until January 2025 if he manages to win re-election, while Kim faces no term limits.
Also looming over the talks is the possibility that Chinese and South Korean enthusiasm to engage economically could overwhelm U.S. efforts to drive a hard bargain. “There’s this excitement to engage North Korea, and I’m afraid it’ll be very hard to keep them on the same page with us to make sure we don’t loosen sanctions before North Korea takes concrete steps,” said Patricia Kim, a nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Hitting It Off
The two leaders might even bond, which could be more decisive than any written declaration, according to William McKinney, a retired Army colonel who spent more than 40 years involved in U.S.-Korea military relations and planning. “If they walk away from the table and feel confident that they know the other person, then what the two of them say in terms of the communique will have some validity,” said McKinney. “That is the most important aspect of this summit.”
There’s still a risk the meeting never even happens, and if it does, it could simply fall apart. Trump’s mercurial negotiating approach has yet to prove effective in reaching new deals on the global stage — if anything so far he’s proved far more adept at canceling agreements than creating them. Trump risks being cast as the spoiler if he pushes too hard, said Patrick Cronin, director of the Center for a New America Security’s Asia-Pacific security program. “If Trump gets a big piece of the nuclear pie of North Korea and he turns it down,” Cronin said, “there’s a risk that we’ll look like we were the stubborn belligerent party, and North Korea was the reasonable party.”