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Reading the tea leaves

History does not favor the optimists with North Korea.
Mar 20,2018
A few years ago, no serious analyst would have predicted that a president of the United States would agree to a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un without preconditions on denuclearization, consultation with Congress or any clear idea of what concrete objectives can be achieved. So perhaps it is futile trying to predict what will happen when and if Trump and Kim actually meet, but I will give it a try.

Scenario 1: Trump does not actually meet Kim (40 percent chance). Trump clearly loves the theatricality of a meeting with Kim, which he is talking up as if it were the Miss Universe Pageant, a pro-wrestling event or reality TV show. However, the idea of a summit may be all the drama Trump ends up delivering.

While his national security team will loyally follow the president’s orders, this was not their idea, and I would expect they are privately ambivalent about the meeting, as one can detect from Vice President Mike Pence’s reiteration that sanctions and maximum pressure will continue until there are concrete steps by the North to end nuclear weapons development.

The experts will probably warn the president that North Korea itself has not communicated any intention to end nuclear weapons development, and even with a positive summit, the North is very likely to cheat and resume testing at some point during the Trump presidency, which would be an enormous embarrassment.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress will caution that conservative voters might be repelled by a U.S. president sitting down with a man responsible for the worst human rights record on the planet.

Trump promised that he would build a wall between the United States and Mexico and that Mexico would pay for it, but instead there are smaller barriers going to be put up with U.S. taxpayer money. He promised he would have a grand military parade with tanks and fighter jets like the one he watched on Bastille Day with French President Emmanuel Macron, but instead the Pentagon announced there would be a much smaller parade with U.S. soldiers dressed in historic uniforms to honor Veterans Day. The president announced massive steel and aluminum tariffs, but the potential damage to U.S. manufacturers and alliance relations led to a series of exemptions.

Since nobody in the National Security Council or Departments of State and Defense would have recommended this meeting before last week, they are likely to implement the president’s pledge with all the prudence that should have been demonstrated in the first place — and may end up causing the North Koreans to balk as a result. We would then end up with talks about talks, which is appropriate, but not the drama and enormous risk of a summit with Kim.

Scenario 2: Trump meets Kim, but talks break down (40 percent chance). In his casino and real estate businesses, Trump was very skillful at announcing bold and risky ventures — and then finding someone else to blame if they failed. Trump will probably discover that Kim has no intention to denuclearize, and his administration has already said that sanctions should not be reduced until there are concrete, verifiable and irreversible steps toward denuclearization.

Trump may be willing to accept the risk associated with a dramatic meeting with Kim because he knows he can pivot back to a hard line if the talks fail. We may find that even if Trump meets Kim in May, we are back to a cycle of confrontation by August. Perhaps dialogue will continue, but in this scenario, North Korea’s real intentions will be laid bare to the president and the dialogue track will fade into the background while the pressure campaign continues.

Scenario 3: Trump meets Kim and pretends to get a breakthrough (18 percent chance). If the theater of the Trump-Kim meeting dominates headlines and generates at least some positive stories, Trump could be tempted to sustain that drama. It is difficult to see Kim agreeing to concrete dismantlement of his nuclear weapons program, but he might agree to vaguely worded language about denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula in exchange for a peace treaty.

If Trump listens to his advisers, he will not go for a peace treaty, which any experienced negotiator with North Korea knows is a device Pyongyang has wanted to demonstrate the international legitimacy of its nuclear weapons status and to pressure the United States and South Korea to dismantle the UN Command and begin decoupling the U.S.-South alliance.

If the summit came to this point, I would expect howls of opposition from Japan, Congressional Republicans and presumably conservatives in the National Assembly in Seoul. But Trump rarely takes his cues from political allies. It will all depend on the reaction of conservative media at home, and Trump’s base may focus on the theater rather than substance of the agreement.

Scenario 4: Trump meets Kim and actually achieves concrete disarmament steps (2 percent chance). If Kim released captured Americans, accounted for at least some abducted Korean and Japanese citizens, ordered the destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear test site or some other significant part of his nuclear weapons or missile program, then a Trump-Kim meeting could be called a success.

I would be very happy to be surprised and proven wrong in my predictions. It is better to be safe than right. But history does not favor the optimists with North Korea.


*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

Michael Green