Ahead of the US-North Korea summit tomorrow (June 12), experts on North Korean regime and nuclear program have been rather dismayed.
The on-again off-again nature of preparations confirmed fears the meeting would be largely a spectacle. President Donald Trump’s recent remarks about the merits of attitude and “feel,” vis-a-vis preparation haven’t helped. The biggest fear is that Trump will give Kim Jong Un more than he will get.
But North Korea watchers, too, are only human, and even in their hearts, hope must spring eternal. In that spirit, we reached out to some of our favorite experts to ask them just one question—what outcome or outcomes from the summit would have you breathe a tiny sigh of relief?
Here are their answers, arranged in order of—what seemed to us—increasing difficulty.
A “Nothingburger summit”
Carla Freeman, director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, DC:
My first sigh of relief will come if the summit takes place and proceeds to a smooth conclusion, without disruption from either side. I fear a bad exchange between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim could set the stage for military action. I will feel hopeful if the leaders conclude their meeting having agreed to talk more. I would celebrate if the summit were to result in agreement between the two sides to promote peace and reconciliation on the peninsula, with denuclearization as part of that process. I hope that President Trump commits foremost to a process, not to specific actions, which risk setting expectations that if not immediately met could result in an end to further engagement between the two sides and frustrations in the White House that could trigger a decision by the US to use force.—
Joshua H. Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review and senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies:
I will be relieved if the summit 1) takes place as planned, without disruptions, and 2) produces a joint statement. My expectations are really that low.
There is no basis for a substantive, detailed agreement touching on nuclear weapons, only broad and vague commitments pointing to a continued process. There’s always the possibility of a gesture involving the freezing of nuclear facilities, which we’ve seen in the past, but this White House seems not very interested in anything that has been done before.
The two Koreas appear to be interested in securing a peace declaration, following from the Panmunjom Declaration. That’s what I would watch for: an announcement of the shared intention to bring a formal end to the Korean War. Beyond that, I have no expectations, only lingering fears of a disaster.
P.S. I guess you could say that I’d be perfectly happy with a “nothingburger summit.”
No commitments that could hurt South Korea or Japan
Julian Ku, law professor at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, New York:
I am fearful of two radically different outcomes. The first outcome would be the announcement of a US-North Korea deal that is limited to a timetable for NK’s eventual denuclearization, without specific pledges on NK’s ICBMs or intermediate-range missiles, in exchange for a US-NK “peace” declaration with a timetable for the US reducing or removing its forces from South Korea. I think this would be a dangerous outcome for the US and South Korea (not to mention the world).
On the other hand, part of me also fears the opposite outcome: The two sides essentially agree to nothing and, in fact, they realize they have no hopes of reaching an agreement, and go back to their bunkers. North Korea will restart its missile tests and the US will start threatening military action again. This is not quite as bad of an outcome, but it is still pretty bad.
For this reason, the outcome that would have me “breathing a tiny inward sigh of relief” is a symbolic handshake and meeting with no specifics on either side, but a pledge to start serious negotiations on denuclearization, with a timetable for completing those negotiations. This would allow experts to fill in lots of missing details needed for any real deal, but give them the political support they need to push forward. This would mean no dramatic gestures or announcements and no specific outcomes at all. It is actually, in my view, the most likely outcome as well. This is why I am cautiously optimistic about this meeting.
David Maxwell, fellow at the Institute of Corean-American Studies and retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with five tours of duty in the Republic of Korea (aka South Korea):
In short, as long as there is no damage to the ROK/US alliance and there is no agreement that results in an order for immediate or near-term withdrawal or significant reduction of US troops on the peninsula I will breathe a sigh of relief. Another way to say it is I will breathe a sigh of relief if the US (and the ROK) does not fall prey to the North’s charm offensive and give concessions with no substantive action from the north in return. [Editor’s note: Maxwell’s full response is much longer and can be found here.]
Paul B. Stares, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations:
It used to be that normal pre-summit planning would more or less preclude a major diplomatic “train wreck,” but the Trump administration doesn’t do “normal.” So I would be relieved if at a minimum there is no bust up between the two leaders that sets us back to the dangerous situation that existed at the end of 2017. Getting through the summit without Trump signing on to something that undermines our relationship with South Korea and Japan would be another source of relief. My overall expectations—given the immense challenges associated with nuclear denuclearizaton—are pretty modest. If we can get at least a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests that provides the platform for further tension reduction measures, I will be happy.
They decide to do it again
Markus Bell, lecturer in Korean and Japanese Studies at the University of Sheffield:
The upcoming Kim-Trump Summit is a huge deal but we need to show caution and not get ahead of ourselves. Both Kim and Trump are going into these talks with their own agendas, and the problem seems to hinge on the issue of denuclearization. The Trump administration has said that it will accept no less than complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea, for it’s part, will never agree to this because it would compromise its security by giving away what is perhaps its one and only leverage in future negotiations and its guarantee against future US aggression. The best thing we can hope for, indeed the result we should be encouraging here, is that Trump and Kim meet person-to-person to begin a dialogue, and agree to meet again in the near future to continue building their relationship. Of course, given Trump’s unpreparedness for this meeting and his penchant for speaking off the cuff, anything could happen. The bottom line, though, is that the last thing we want to see is a return to the brinkmanship of 2017.
Vipin Narang, MIT associate political science professor, specializing in nuclear proliferation:
A second meeting.
Concrete steps towards curbing North Korea’s weapons programs—and accepting international inspectors
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
I would like to see a joint statement that draws from the September 2005 Six Party Talks agreement. In that statement, North Korea committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs and returning to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty from which it withdrew in 2003. Pyongyang should also agree to accept safeguard inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The United States should reaffirm that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons. The two sides can also express their intentions to create and adhere to a road map that will lead to normalized relations.
Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior research scholar, China Center, Yale Law School:
I would breathe a small sigh of relief if the summit declaration signaled the start of a concrete process that would culminate in an arms control regime with North Korea—that is, a commitment by Pyongyang to extend its testing freeze, to move towards capping its weapons programs, and to allow international inspectors back into the country. The Trump administration has finally realized that North Korea has not committed to the full, unilateral dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program. The summit could easily culminate in an empty, meaningless bargain. It could, however, still yield results if it implicitly accepts an objective short of full denuclearization and starts to lay out a process to get there.
Ken Gause, director of the international affairs group at the CNA Center for Strategic Studies:
I suspect the best we can hope for is a general agreement on denuclearization (to be followed by a phased process to work out the details) and maybe some statement on the end of the Korean conflict. Then [they] declare victory and go home. The challenge will be in the follow up and maintaining engagement over time and avoiding buyer’s remorse, which will be something the Trump administration will have to deal with in the face of almost certain criticism on the Right and the Left.
Denuclearlization, verification, normalization
Bill Richardson, former US ambassador to the UN and governor of New Mexico:
- A serious, substantial reduction and limitation and destruction of North Korean nuclear and missile technology. How do I define serious? They have 60 nuclear weapons, they’re not going to get rid of all of them, but I want to see them destroy and dismantle some.
- Full unfettered international verification [of that dismantling], including disclosing where their missile sites are and an inventory.
- Normalization of relations. That could involve an exchange of liaison officers, hot lines [between countries] and family reunifications between the Koreas.
- Some kind of military recovery exchange, where we get the remains of our soldiers back to their families. There are 5,000 of those.
If that happens, I will pronounce this summit a success and I will hold back on my enormous criticism of the rest of the president’s foreign policy.
Trump is not himself
Robert Kelly (@robert_e_kelly), political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea:
Great question. That inward sigh of relief? If Trump controls himself, if he doesn’t bring the “Trump Show” to this meeting—doesn’t say anything outlandish, ignorant, or racist; doesn’t trade away anything valuable for a pseudo-concession he does not understand is a fake; doesn’t laugh it up, buddy up, or smile too much on camera with an Orwellian gangster who is the world’s worst human-rights abuser; stays off of Twitter for day or so, not immediately crowing over this as the greatest, yugest moment in intergalactic history which proves the Mueller investigation is a witch-hunt, Nancy Pelosi is a fraud, the NFL hates America, there really were good people on both sides at Charlottesville, and so on…