Forget the Political Calendar: It’s Time for Another Trump-Kim Meeting
On Aug. 7, U.S. President Donald Trump remarked that he will “make deals with North Korea very quickly” if he is reelected in November. Kyodo News, Japan’s largest news agency, reported that a U.S. government source revealed the following day that the United States is seeking to establish liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington, which would be quasi embassies. On Sept. 2, Lee Do-hoon and Stephen Biegun, the chief negotiators for Seoul and Washington, respectively, agreed that “the early resumption of dialogue between the Republic of Korea and North Korea as well as between the U.S. and North Korea is crucial” and “discussed the conditions and the ways to work together to that end.”
By now, many people are tired of Trump’s photo-op diplomacy. Nevertheless, another summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un would offer important advantages that could benefit the United States and its security partners, regardless of who prevails in this November’s presidential election. It would be a way to improve upon the current stalemate with little risk.
Trump’s remark last month was about a post-election summit, but there are reasons to believe that both Washington and Pyongyang are contemplating a meeting between Trump and Kim before the U.S. election. On July 10, for example, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North Korean supreme leader, expressed her opposition to another summit between her brother and Trump, but she also hinted that “a surprise thing may still happen, depending upon the judgement and decision between the two top leaders.” In the United States, the White House memoir of former national security adviser John Bolton, which describes how he prevented Trump from making a deal with Kim in the 2019 U.S.-North Korean summit in Hanoi, has been stirring up discussions about an October surprise. Trump may meet Kim yet another time to score a diplomatic “win” before the November election.
Provided that Americans do not want to risk millions of lives by invading the nuclear-armed North Korea, there are only limited options to reduce the threat posed by its arsenal: continuing economic sanctions in the hope that Pyongyang will eventually capitulate or diplomatic engagement that rewards North Korea’s concessions in the direction of nuclear disarmament. We have already seen for decades that economic sanctions are not enough to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons. Whoever wins the election in November, therefore, will have to engage Pyongyang diplomatically — or give up on this path, focus on the deterrence and containment of North Korea’s threat, and live with a nuclear North Korea and continuing tensions.
Another Trump-Kim summit is in the U.S. national interest because the preparatory process and anticipation are likely to limit North Korean provocations. Without another initiative by Trump, Kim is likely to resort to provocations and brinkmanship to convince the outside world about the necessity of dealing with his isolated dictatorship. Kim did not deliver the so-called Christmas gift at the end of 2019 and has not revealed his “new strategic weapon” either, and lack of progress in U.S.-North Korean relations will eventually lead to a new wave of escalations. If North Korea relies on provocations, however, U.S. domestic politics will make it difficult for Trump or Joe Biden to continue diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang. Trump might still pursue photo-op diplomacy with Kim after reelection for personal vanity, but he will have less domestic political necessity to continue the détente.
Many would be skeptical of the benefit of another summit either before or after the election. In the former case, it will be dismissed as a political ploy. In the latter, if Trump loses, a summit would be derided as a lame duck striking a deal with a short shelf life, at best, or hobbling his successor’s foreign policy, at worst. These objections are not sufficient to refrain from a cooperative agreement. Political timing matters mostly for domestic political reasons, and the content of the agreement and the positive side effects of pursuing an agreement are more important to the U.S. national interest.
Americans should not dismiss another Trump-Kim summit as useless to North Korea because of the upcoming U.S. election. In fact, the United States has always had difficulty in credibly committing to long-term cooperation with North Korea over the latter’s denuclearization. This is so because the United States is much more powerful, the Kim regime has few friends, and Pyongyang will lose bargaining power once it gives up its nuclear program. In other words, power asymmetry between the United States and North Korea, as well as the nature of nuclear negotiations, exacerbates what economists call time inconsistency problems.
From Pyongyang’s perspective, a deal with Trump must be useful even if Biden becomes president or Trump abrogates the agreement later. North Koreans, in turn, also have incentives to offer something that is acceptable to whomever occupies the oval office by late January of next year. Instead of worrying about the sustainability of a deal Trump might strike, Americans should focus on achieving a verifiable agreement. Just as the United States is unable to credibly commit to long-term cooperation, North Korea also has a problem with transparency because of its closed political system. North Korea’s concessions are most useful, therefore, if they are easy to verify.
Is it possible to design a deal that circumvents the U.S. lack of credible commitment and North Korea’s tendency to cheat the outside world? In fact, the world is already benefiting from such an arrangement. The current détente between the United States and North Korea has been facilitated by a de facto freeze-for-freeze where Kim suspends nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests while Trump postpones or scales down military exercises targeting Pyongyang. These measures are easily verifiable and reversible, thereby alleviating both sides’ concerns about the other’s opportunistic behavior.
There are many possibilities for small but meaningful deals between Trump and Kim, involving issues such as economic sanctions, capping North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, a peace treaty, liaison offices, and inspections of nuclear facilities in North Korea. Establishment of liaison offices, which the Kyodo News report said the U.S. government is working on, is promising because it signals U.S. willingness to engage North Korea in the long term. Meaningful inspections of facilities in North Korea are difficult in early phases of diplomatic engagement because North Koreans will worry about inspections creating military vulnerability while Americans will worry about North Korea’s deception in the inspection process.
In order to make a breakthrough, I recommend an exchange of a few North Korean nuclear warheads with partial lifting of economic sanctions, promoted as arms control or scientific cooperation. This is emphatically different from what the United States reportedly demanded at the 2019 Hanoi summit — the transfer of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and bomb fuel to the United States. Surrendering the entirety of its nuclear arsenal is irrational for the North Korean regime, but Pyongyang can offer a small number of nuclear warheads without reducing its future bargaining power. According to a report of the U.S. Army in July 2020, North Korea is estimated to have 20 to 60 nuclear bombs and can produce six new devices each year.
As I explained in a recent policy brief, there are many benefits to the weapons transfer deal. Unlike most deals that have been previously proposed, the transfer of nuclear warheads does not require inspections in North Korea, which have been problematic for both Pyongyang and Washington. Trump might love such a deal for its theatricality, but it will also serve as a confidence building measure. Most importantly, fewer nuclear warheads in the hands of Kim will mean improved security for the United States and its allies. Unlike the 1994 Agreed Framework, no one has to pay for the relaxation of economic sanctions against North Korea, and the sanctions can be gradually lifted according to the number of warheads transferred.
The deal alone will not resolve the North Korean nuclear problem, but it will be a sound basis for a bipartisan North Korea policy of future U.S. administrations. Democrats will naturally have incentives to attack every aspect of Trump’s North Korea policy, as Republicans attacked those of Bill Clinton. With the development of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, however, what is at stake in U.S. diplomacy toward Pyongyang is too big to be sacrificed for domestic political gains. A positive step toward the reduction of North Korea’s nuclear threat will be useful for a Biden administration too, especially if it is supported by Republicans as Trump’s legacy. Thus, another Trump-Kim meeting would be beneficial for both Biden and Trump.
Tongfi Kim, Ph.D., is assistant professor of international affairs at Vesalius College and KF-VUB Korea Chair senior researcher in Brussels, Belgium. He is the author of The Supply Side of Security: A Market Theory of Military Alliances.