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Pitfalls for the Singapore Summit

The administration continues to expect North Korea to agree to make major concessions in exchange for nothing.

The latest reporting on the administration’s plans for the Singapore summit does not fill me with confidence:

The White House wants North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to commit to a timetable to surrender his country’s nuclear arsenal [bold mine-DL] when he meets President Donald Trump next week in Singapore, a high-stakes summit that could last as long as two days — or just minutes.

Trump has been advised not to offer Kim any concessions [bold mine-DL], as the White House seeks to put the onus on the North Koreans to make the summit a success, one U.S. official said. The president is determined to walk out of the meeting if it doesn’t go well [bold mine-DL], two officials said. Alternatively, Trump is toying with the idea of offering Kim a follow-up summit at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida — perhaps in the fall — if the two men hit it off.

Despite some recent remarks from the president suggesting greater flexibility, it seems that the administration continues to expect North Korea to agree to make major concessions in exchange for nothing. This is an unreasonable expectation, and it stems from a basic failure to understand the North Korean position. Combined with Trump’s readiness to walk out “if it doesn’t go well,” it means that the administration still doesn’t understand how they reached this point or what they have to do to secure a successful compromise. Indeed, it suggests that they have no interest in hammering out a compromise.

North Korea is not coming to the meeting as a supplicant. Administration spin notwithstanding, “maximum pressure” is not what brought North Korea to the negotiating table, and it is not going to compel them to make the sort of concessions Trump wants. If North Korea is going to concede anything significant, it is going to require that the U.S. give up something of equal value to us. The administration’s past inflexibility on this point does not bode well, and they will have to set it aside if they are going to get anything out of the summit meeting.

The summit should not have been held so soon when the positions of both sides remain as far apart as they are. If diplomacy with North Korea falls apart as a result of this meeting, it will likely be because the president accepted a meeting too quickly before the necessary preparations had been made. If it leads to a process of sustained U.S.-North Korean engagement, it will almost certainly be because the U.S. backed off of its maximalist demands and accepted the need to compromise.



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