Responding to news of Kim Jong-un’s visit to Beijing this week, the president tweeted this message earlier today:
For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a small possibility. Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2018
The “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” remains a very small possibility, but there is a very good chance that Trump is once again mistaking boilerplate North Korean rhetoric for a meaningful change in their position. North Korean leaders have talked about the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” for a long time, but the conditions they set for it are considerable. It is no different this time:
Kim Jong Un: The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if south Korea and the Unite States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace pic.twitter.com/02VRVdx7wT
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) March 28, 2018
These conditions are not necessarily unreasonable, but it shows that North Korea and the U.S. are still worlds apart on what denuclearization entails and how it will happen:
Kim’s declared commitment to denuclearization, however, is neither new, nor likely in line with Washington’s expectations.
North Korea has long said it is open to eventually giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States withdraws its troops from South Korea and ends its “nuclear umbrella” security alliance with Seoul, among other conditions.
The United States, meanwhile, has insisted on complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the facilities needed to build those weapons as soon as possible.
The differing interpretations threaten to scuttle potential talks between North Korea and the United States before they begin.
“As we approach the summits, conceptions of denuclearization seem to be diverging rather than converging,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.
The conditions are crucial here. "Atmosphere" and "progressive and synchronous measures" imply a sustained and reciprocal exchange of tensions reductions issues. Good idea! But diametrically opposed to how Bolton (and likely Trump) thinks about denuclearization. https://t.co/PtGmtUSSCw
— Adam Mount (@ajmount) March 28, 2018
The U.S. and North Korea should be negotiating to resolve the current standoff, and those negotiations could focus on how to achieve realistic goals of limiting North Korea’s arsenal and tests in exchange for sanctions relief and security guarantees. But diplomacy with North Korea can’t and won’t succeed if the Trump administration approaches the meeting as if denuclearization is practically a done deal and doesn’t come with any strings attached.
If the president approaches the meeting with Kim believing that the latter is going to do “what is right for his people and for humanity” (I suppose there’s a first time for everything), he will be unpleasantly surprised to find that North Korea’s price for agreeing to denuclearization is far higher than he was expecting. Trump doesn’t strike me as someone who takes unexpected bad news well. Trump’s incoming National Security Advisor has said that the U.S. should offer and give North Korea precisely nothing and doesn’t think there is a deal worth making if it doesn’t involve North Korea’s surrender. If Trump thinks Kim is going to accept that, the summit will not go well. This is why rushing into a high-level summit without doing any of the preliminary preparation and negotiation is potentially so dangerous. It sets the summit up to the fail, and that plays into the hands of hard-liners that have no interest in a compromise solution.