Yes, Trump and Kim Can Make a Deal That’s Good for Everyone

If both sides agree on the answers to these three questions, a successful summit just might be possible.

A huge screen in Tokyo flahes news on March 8, 2018 that President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong agreed to meet for talks. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)
A huge screen in Tokyo flahes news on March 8, 2018 that President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong agreed to meet for talks. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s going to happen when U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un finally get together? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. My colleague Graham Allison thinks there’s a limited but mutually beneficial agreement to be had; other analysts are decidedly more pessimistic. The uncertainty surrounding the whole business is hardly surprising, given the two leaders involved and the improvised nature of the entire process. Normally you’d expect the two sides to have worked out the outlines of the agreement before the two heads of state sat down together, but that’s unlikely to be the case this time — which means almost anything could happen.

An obvious complication is that we are dealing here with two leaders who can’t be trusted at all. North Korea has a long history of lies, prevarications, double-dealing, norm-breaking, and otherwise deceptive behavior, and there’s no reason to take anything Kim or his associates might say at face value. Unfortunately, the current U.S. president is also a proven and chronic liar with a trail of bankruptcies, lawsuits, disgruntled former business partners, and betrayed associates in his past. And it’s not like he suddenly became a truth-teller when he took the oath of office. I guess you could say the two leaders are on equal footing: Neither has any reason to believe a word the other says. Thus far, however, Kim seems to have been the wilier of the two.

To be clear about the state of play so far: The young leader of North Korea is getting a personal, one-on-one meeting with the U.S. president, in the full glare of the international media, with Trump treating him as an equal. He’s already gotten Trump to give him something significant — a face-to-face summit meeting — without surrendering a thing to get it. (Contrary to the administration’s spin, North Korea has made no solid commitments to do anything in advance of the meeting.) Kim Jong Il, the current North Korean leader’s late father, never earned such a privilege, and neither did his grandfather Kim Il Sung. Instead of Kim being seen as the isolated, mysterious, and slightly wacky head of a hermit kingdom, this meeting is a big step toward legitimizing Kim as a significant figure on the world stage. He may be doing this because sanctions are getting to him, or because he fears a U.S. attack, but at this point in the game the score is Kim 1, Trump 0.

Having handed Kim a major concession by accepting his invitation to meet, Trump is now under some pressure to get something significant in return. And given Trump’s repeated (and unconvincing) complaints about the nuclear deal with Iran, he has to be able to spin any future agreement with North Korea as substantially better than the deal that the Obama administration negotiated with Tehran. That’s not going to be easy, given that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran is extremely detailed, involves massive inspections of a sort North Korea would likely reject, and prevents Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state for at least 10 more years. Yes, I know: North Korea already has nuclear weapons, but that just means that getting an arrangement that looks really good from an American perspective is going to be a lot harder. In short, a Kim-Trump summit is unlikely to yield an agreement that is objectively superior to the Iran deal, even it is an improvement on the status quo.

Nonetheless, diplomacy is preferable to war at this stage, and there are undoubtedly agreements the two sides could reach that might advance both states’ interests and open a path to more meaningful discussions. So as we breathlessly await the outcome, here are the three issues I’d keep foremost in mind as the discussions proceed.

Does the agreement reduce the danger of war? One obvious goal of diplomacy with North Korea is to prevent a new war on the Korean Peninsula. In this sense, the mere fact that the two states are talking (with China and South Korea as indirect but important participants as well) is a good sign, and preferable to the juvenile name-calling and saber-rattling that was taking place between “Little Rocket Man” and America’s “dotard” president last year.

Yet there are outcomes that could raise the temperature rather than lower it. If North Korea proves less forthcoming than Trump expects and he has to walk away, or if the United States asks for too much too soon and gets stiffed, then Trump may have little choice but to revisit the military option, to the alarm of just about everyone. Alternatively, an agreement that reduces North Korea’s deterrent capability might tempt hard-liners in the United States to think seriously about regime change, while at the same time making Pyongyang jittery and more inclined to take risks. Normalization and denuclearization might be desirable in the abstract, but tampering with the status quo is inherently uncertain and unwittingly make things worse.

Is the agreement likely to last? Any deal that is grossly one-sided invites whoever gets the short end to look for opportunities to renegotiate or otherwise evade the deal after it is reached. If Americans want North Korea to abide by the terms of an agreement, they have to give them at least some of their core objectives, such as the lifting of economic sanctions, diplomatic recognition, and perhaps some tacit limits on U.S.-South Korean military exercises, in exchange for the United States getting most (but probably not all) of what it wants. Bilking gullible customers may work for a while if you’re running a bogus “university,” but in international politics, states can always abrogate a deal if they think they got taken. To endure, in short, an agreement has to satisfy each side’s minimum objectives.

At the same time, each side has to agree on exactly what they are committing to do and what they expect from the other. The United States and North Korea have to agree on what key terms mean and have a crystal-clear understanding of what each has pledged to do. Given that North Korea has a prior history of saying one thing and doing another, this is hardly a trivial concern. In this regard, the fact that the term “denuclearization” means very different things to each side (and sometimes different things to Trump himself) is not exactly encouraging.

Compounding this problem is the obvious absence of trust between the two parties. As I’ve noted in a recent column, the United States has a poor track record of abiding by some recent agreements (such as the Bush administration’s pledge not to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi if he let them dismantle his weapons of mass destruction program), and the Libyan example is no doubt firmly lodged in Kim’s mind today. Trump’s repeated attacks on the Iran nuclear deal and his desire to renegotiate NAFTA and the U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement just make this problem worse.

Which raises the following question: How can Washington convince Pyongyang that it will in fact abide by the terms as long as North Korea does? Americans tend to focus on how they can make sure North Korea doesn’t cheat, but North Korea is bound to have similar concerns of its own. If Kim formally agreed to reduce his strategic weapons programs in exchange for sanctions relief or other U.S. concessions, how can he be confident the United States won’t go back on its pledges later on? Here it is worth remembering that both the United States and North Korea failed to fully comply with the 1994 Agreed Framework, which is part of the reason that North Korea is a nuclear-armed power today.

If I were Kim, I wouldn’t settle for a handshake, a memorandum of understanding, a verbal pledge, or even an executive agreement, because the United States is just too darn fickle these days. Instead, I would insist on a formal treaty akin to SALT or START, duly ratified by the U.S. Senate. And if Kim insists on a formal and duly ratified treaty, this ups the ante for the agreement even more. Of course, the same goes for the United States: As soon as the talks go beyond something relatively simple like the suspension of missile tests (and even that issue can get complicated) and start addressing meaningful reductions in North Korea’s capabilities, the United States will want stringent verification procedures to ensure that North Korea is not cheating. To repeat, that would involve a level of intrusiveness that Pyongyang has never been comfortable with in the past.

And note the obvious paradox: The better the agreement is from a purely American perspective, the more unfavorable it is likely to be to Pyongyang and the greater its incentive to evade it. Oddly enough, a more even-handed agreement that provides a lot of benefits to both sides and doesn’t favor either power too much is also an agreement that both might be more likely to abide by in perpetuity. Except that in the United States, a deal that actually seems somewhat beneficial to North Korea might be quickly denounced by hawks as a complete sellout.

Bottom line: If the states do reach some sort of agreement, ask yourself whether it is mutually beneficial and thus a deal that each will stick with out of its sense of self-interest. And if it seems too good to be true, it probably is and it probably won’t last.

How will an agreement affect the U.S. security position in Asia? From a long-term perspective, what happens between Trump and Kim next month is less important than what happens between the United States and China over the next several decades. A key issue in that intensifying rivalry is whether the United States maintains an active security role in Asia and prevents China from establishing itself as the dominant power there. If Trump’s efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear ambitions end up reducing allied confidence in the United States, or if he impulsively agrees to reduce the U.S. role in South Korea in order to get a deal, the result would be a net win for China, a serious blow to allies such as Japan, and a major setback for the United States. When he meets with Kim, therefore, Trump has to make sure that his eagerness to make an “historic” deal doesn’t lead him to pursue tactical gains at the expense of America’s long-term strategic position.

This danger is especially acute given the damage that Trump has already done to the U.S. position in Asia. His decision to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a body blow to U.S. efforts to strengthen a balancing coalition in Asia, and his on-again, off-again statements about the TPP can only reinforce Asian perceptions that the president doesn’t know what he really thinks about this issue. Trump has treated Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shabbily (despite Abe’s extensive efforts to win him over), and his insistence on renegotiating the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement in the midst of the simmering confrontation with the North just made the United States seem petty and selfish. Loose talk about “fire and fury” and “bloody nose” attacks were hardly reassuring, either.

How a possible agreement will affect America’s overall position is not entirely clear. On the one hand, an agreement that leads North Korea to suspend intercontinental ballistic missile tests would make the United States safer (in the short term) but leave allies like Japan and South Korea vulnerable to the shorter-range missiles North Korea has already perfected. Accordingly, it might look to these allies like the United States cared only for its own security and was mostly indifferent to theirs. On the other hand, some nuclear theologians would argue that the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be more credible if North Korea did not have a reliable capacity to hit the continental United States, and thus its allies might actually be reassured.

But what if North Korea insists on substantial reductions in America’s security role on the Korean Peninsula, perhaps as part of a final peace treaty ending the Korean War? (I know Kim has reportedly said he won’t insist on this, at least according to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but I’m not taking that to the bank just yet.) And while peace on the peninsula is highly desirable, a formal end to the Korean War would also remove a major rationale for the U.S. military presence there. Kim has already shown himself to be adept at driving wedges between Washington and Seoul, and a fair number of South Koreans might embrace this idea too, despite their own concerns about China’s growing power. Although some reports suggest China is very worried about where the talks might lead, Beijing could end up the big winner if Trump manages to get the United States booted off the peninsula.

What do I think will happen? If I had to bet, I’d say the two leaders will reach a very limited, mostly symbolic agreement — say, on ICBM testing — and then let underlings continue formal discussions on a broader set of issues. That’s been the standard North Korean playbook for long time, and the main issue is how much Trump will have to pledge to get Kim to agree.

And if he does, that raises a second question. Given national security advisor John Bolton’s stated views on the desirability of war with North Korea, would he resign in protest? Now there’s an unintended consequence a lot of Democrats could get behind.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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