The magnitude of President Trump’s decision to accept a summit invitation from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un should not be understated.
It is bold. It is risky. It might even be the ultimate geopolitical Hail Mary pass of all time. Yet if the talks were to somehow succeed it would mean the total realignment of Northeast Asia’s security landscape. It would be a big win for America, Japan, and South Korea. It would be a likely step towards the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. And best of all, it would allow Washington to put its military, economic, and diplomatic muscle into pushing back against an aggressive China, since Washington would no longer need Beijing’s help to rein in the so-called hermit kingdom.
Then there are the downsides—and they are huge. If the talks fail—and fail spectacularly they might—the stage could be set for a showdown on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis, maybe worse. Negotiations that go sour could lead to a hardening of positions on both sides, which would leave no diplomatic room in which to work. Washington and Pyongyang would then be pushed to escalate tensions to the point where nuclear war would be possible.
But before we discuss the potential deaths of millions, lets step back for a moment and look at where we are in this crisis.
Thanks to a clever strategy that seeks to act as a bridge between Pyongyang and Washington, Seoul has pulled off a diplomatic coup. Not only has North Korea agreed to hold back any nuclear and missile tests while talks are underway, they have also agreed not to dispute the large-scale U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises set to take place at the end of this month.
There is, however, a big catch: North Korea, at least publicly, has not agreed to anything. That’s a problem, as Pyongyang could be debating internally what price tag it wishes to extract for either sitting down at the negotiating table or giving up its nukes. And if the past is any guide, the price could astronomical.
So what is Team Trump’s next move? Simply put, they need to test North Korea’s intentions to make sure this is a truly sincere offer. The administration has every reason to be leery, because if North Korea is just doing what it always does—offering negotiations as a way to stall for time and/or using them as a way to extract concessions for just the privilege of talks—we must uncover their deception now.
But how do we bring to light Pyongyang’s true motives? The administration must do the following.
First, the time for using South Korea as a bridge to the North is over. Direct communication in some format must be established to make sure Kim’s offer for talks is truly legitimate. So far, despite the world’s collective excitement—and my own—this still has not been done. North Korea needs to state its intent for talks, and that those talks will include discussion of its denuclearization. If there is any change in position from what has been conveyed by South Korea, the Trump administration should abort.
Next, the meeting can only be held in the DMZ along the North-South Korea border, nowhere else. This will ensure that no side gets any sort of optics victory. Crucially, the Trump administration must never agree to a meeting in Pyongyang—ever. Kim would be handed the biggest propaganda victory in modern times as his regime will splatter the photo of any handshake between the portly pariah of Pyongyang and President Trump on every billboard across the hermit kingdom. That would be a colossal mistake.
Third, while both sides have agreed that the North will not test missiles or nuclear weapons while talks are underway, there is a potential loophole that needs to be closed, in which North Korea tries to launch what they claim is a civilian rocket but that would really be a sneaky test of an ICBM. This is a tactic they tried during the Obama administration. It can’t be allowed to happen again.
Fourth, the most important aspect of these talks is what can only be described as the talks before the talks. Washington and Pyongyang must work in the weeks ahead to make sure that the Kim regime puts on the table a path towards denuclearization that is viable and, most of all, verifiable. If North Korea won’t offer any proposal before the summit, Team Trump should conclude that it’s just another stall for time or play for sanctions relief—and should cancel the talks immediately.
The danger here can’t be understated: the administration would be making a huge mistake to try and hammer out a deal with Kim at a summit where there is no mutual trust, no idea how personalities will mesh, and no clear sense of what either side’s red lines are. There must be a negotiation before the negotiation. If not, the chances of a summit collapse are nearly guaranteed.
In the weeks ahead, we should have a good idea whether this historic meeting is really going to happen or not. While I would love to see a world where North Korea is no longer a threat, a bad summit would be far worse. Imagine a situation where both sides walk away and Kim begins testing missiles and nuclear weapons all over again. Pyongyang might decide to prove to the world that its nuclear weapons are viable and detonate one in the atmosphere—the first time this will have happened since 1980. If that were to occur, the Trump administration may feel it has no choice but to respond with devastating military force, and our world would never be the same again.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. Previously, he led the foreign policy communications efforts of the Heritage Foundation, and served as editor-in-chief of The Diplomat and as a fellow at CSIS:PACNET. The views expressed are his own.