The summit that is to take place beginning on June 12th between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un promises to have plenty of pomp and circumstance. Both men thrive in that kind of atmosphere. This is a meeting Kim has wanted for many years, despite being put off by previous US Presidents. Trump seeks to do something his predecessors could not – find a solution that will, once and for all, denuclearize the Korean peninsula. There are many things to analyze in this upcoming summit, but let’s start with expectations and then move to what it is that the parties really want in all of this (and by parties, I mean both direct and indirect parties). I will conclude by playing Nostradamus and predicting where I think this negotiation will lead.
In terms of expectations, there will likely be many immediate claims of victory by both sides, which often happens in negotiation. In fact, it is often the case that both sides must be able to declare victory or the process cannot continue. That stated, this summit is the very first step in what will be a long and difficult negotiation process with many ups and downs. That is how negotiation works. Denuclearization is a tricky business and requires many detailed steps that could take years to actually make happen. According to Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who once directed the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, a phased denuclearization of North Korea could take upwards of 15 years! Add to that notion the fact that it is unclear if the two sides actually agree on what the concept of denuclearization really means and, well, our expectations of the outcome need serious adjustment.
On the flip side, given the high bar that has been set by the US in demanding complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, it is possible the summit ends in finger pointing. If so, at least each side will be able to say they tried a diplomatic approach and the other side was just too unreasonable. My perspective is that both sides have come a long way since the early days of threats and counterthreats. The two men have put their reputation on the line for this summit. They are more likely to declare victory and leave the details to be addressed later…and that is where things are very likely to break down.
So, to summarize expectations, look for declarations of success in the very near term, followed by a long period of uncertainty and difficult negotiations related to the details. This process could succeed, but we won’t know for quite some time.
Who are the parties and what do they really want?
In any negotiation, it is critical to understand what the parties are REALLY trying to achieve (AKA their underlying interests). That often does not correlate to what they say they want publicly. As such, negotiations require reading between the lines and looking for clues as to what is fundamental to all the parties involved.
Furthermore, when analyzing a negotiation such as this, it is important to map all the parties involved. The two main parties are obvious, but there are a lot of other indirect parties that have a vital stake in the outcome. We will consider those as well. But let’s begin with Kim and Trump and their objectives.
In a sense, Kim Jong-Un has already won his greatest concession – simply holding this summit with a US President. Kim covets two primary things as part of this process: 1. Legitimacy and 2. Survival/security. First, in terms of legitimacy, stretching back decades and through Kim’s lineage, this is something his grandfather (Kim Il-sung) and his father (Kim Jong-Il) sought desperately. As a rogue nation, North Korea has been on the outskirts of the international community. Legitimacy brings them in.
Second, Kim is desperate to preserve his own survival and seeks security guarantees if he were to denuclearize. He has watched Saddam Hussein of Iraq and then Muammar Gaddafi of Libya die – each after giving up their weapons of mass destruction (although it is still unclear is Saddam ever had any). References made by administration officials to the “Libya model” suggest that when Gaddafi gave up his nuclear capability he was ripe to be overthrown…and he was (and killed). This dynamic has to be in the back (or front) of Kim’s mind as he goes into this process. Further, it is also possible that how the Trump administration has approached the Iran deal (exiting it) will also weigh on Kim’s thinking. In the end, Kim is out to survive and sees the US as his enemy. What kinds of guarantees can be given to him in this context will be critical to the success of this negotiation process.
When it comes to Trump, he seeks two things as well. First and foremost, he wants to show the world he can do something no other president has done—defy the odds and come up with an elusive solution to a problem that has lasted for close to 70 years. Second, he has put a stake in the ground that full denuclearization is the only end game.
Trump thrives on being able to prove many around the world wrong. He goes it alone and marches to his own beat. He wants the world to see him as a person who can solve problems that others could not (he has already secured the release of three Korean-Americans that were held in North Korea). He is also a showman and reality TV star, so a summit where the world’s eyes are focused on him is a moment he covets. All this speaks to some kind of success – or at least the optics of success.
On the denuclearization front, this is where the negotiation process will get difficult. The administration’s rhetoric, recently articulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” is very VERY hard to achieve when you get to the specifics. Who will do this verifying? What will the process and timeline be? How will problems and challenges that will undoubtedly arise during the longer negotiation process get handled during the implementation of the agreement? All of these, and MANY more questions, will need to be addressed over time.
Similar to the Iran deal, which many people believe was between the United States and Iran (it was not—it was between the United States, China, France, Russia, UK, and Germany), the North Korean negotiation includes many indirect parties. These indirect parties include South Korea, China, and Japan. Let’s look at each, and what they want as part of this process.
South Korea stands the most to gain and lose as part of this process. A reunification with the North is one goal they have, but it is quite complicated in practice. South Korea is a modern, technologically advanced country that is well integrated into the international community of nations. North Korea is a reclusive hermit kingdom with a closed view to the world. How would those two worlds come together? How would their very distinct cultures mesh or repel each other?
The other core interest of South Korea is the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. If the negotiations fail and the situation escalates again, the South would most likely be the target of any attack. President Moon Jae-in has staked his political future on this process and, without his mediation, it is very unlikely the parties would be meeting. He has been a moderating force between two loud and outspoken parties.
If there is a North Korean ally in the world, it is their neighbor, China. However, their relationship is paradoxically filled with tension and possibilities. China certainly wants to see a denuclearized North Korea due to its inherent unpredictability, but it also would like to see the burden it has toward North Korea lifted. That would come if North Korea moves from being ostracized to being integrated into the international community.
Of all the countries involved in this process, it may be China that is best suited to serve as a guarantor of the denuclearization process. North Korea trusts China as much as anyone. The US trusts China on this issue. Unfortunately, on many other fronts, China and the US are at odds. For example, it is hard to put significant tariffs on a country, and then turn around and ask for their help. If the US is able to secure China’s role as a guarantor, it can play a critical and constructive role throughout the process.
Like the other countries in the region, Japan very much wants a denuclearized North Korea. Japan has been the target of many threats from North Korea and would be a potential place for an attack if negotiations do not bear fruit.
Japan also has a real concern that it will be sidelined in the process. There are many Japanese detainees in North Korea and they would like them back. The summit and negotiation process itself is the opposite of how the Japanese negotiate, which is in a very understated manner and to try to save face (and help the other to do so as well) at all costs.
So what does this all add up to in the end?
In the end, my perspective is that the summit will end up being a short-term optical success. Both men need for that to happen for their own reasons and will leave being able to declare victory. The REAL negotiation process is much more muddled and will be left to mid-level diplomats to try to hammer out over these coming months (or years?). With conflicting notions about what denuclearization means and a stake in the ground from the US that anything short of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” is unacceptable, uncertainty becomes the name of the game. Anything is possible, but the deck is stacked against a sustainable agreement being reached. That, however, is why you negotiate—to see what is possible and try to resolve difficult issues through dialogue instead of what could only be described as a horrific alternative.
Weiss was interviewed by The Boston Globe on this topic. Read more.