After months of nuclear taunts, sports diplomacy and a rollercoaster of a will-they-or-won’t-they tango, it all comes down to this: President Trump will meet face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on Tuesday.
An unsuccessful summit, which will begin Monday night Washington time, could plunge U.S.-North Korea tensions back to last year’s precarious state, or worse. But if successful, the summit could lead to a peace that’s been elusive for a half century.
The world is crossing its fingers.
“No matter what happens, President Trump and Kim Jong Un are going to call it a success because both leaders are invested in this and they want to,” Sue Mi Terry, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said at a press briefing.
The Trump- Kim meeting will be a first for a sitting U.S. president and North Korean leader, and the picture would have seemed unthinkable just a year ago.
Trump took office having been warned by President Obama that North Korea would be his gravest challenge, and tensions boiled almost immediately as Pyongyang began a barrage of missile tests during Trump’s first months in office.
The tests culminated in November’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea said could reach the entirety of the United States.
North Korea also conducting its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September, which Pyongyang said was a successful hydrogen bomb detonation.
Trump responded to the provocations with provocative rhetoric, belittling Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and threatening “fire and fury.” The Trump administration also launched the so-called “maximum pressure” campaign that sought to choke North Korea with sanctions.
Then came the New Year, an Olympics in South Korea and change.
Kim used his New Year’s address to suggest a diplomatic opening — sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“I think that was a very shrewd move on Kim Jong Un’s part,” Terry said. “North Korea knew just the line to stop. They didn’t go further. They didn’t conduct – remember, we were worried about North Korea conducting atmospheric nuclear tests and going further. But they just stopped right before they crossed that line.”
The Olympics-inspired diplomacy led to more talks with the South, during which the North extended an invitation for Trump to meet with Kim.
When the South Koreans visited Washington to relay the invitation in March, Trump accepted on the spot.
Since then, U.S. and North Korean diplomats have been trying to bridge the gap between the two countries’ definition of denuclearization.
Instead of “rocket man,” Trump has been calling Kim a “very honorable” man.
The summit was thrown into doubt late last month after North Korea took exception to comments from national security advisor John Bolton and made clear its definition of denuclearization includes concessions from the United States. Trump canceled the meeting, but decided to move ahead with it a week later after a visit to Washington by a top North Korean official.
Democrats say they are hope Trump can pull a strong deal off, though they express worry he could accept a bad deal just to secure an agreement.
“We don’t want the president to fail at this,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told reporters this week. “We want him to succeed. The stakes for our nation are simply too great. We all want diplomacy to succeed. But, if the president signs on to any deal, even if it’s a bad deal, simply because he wants a deal, that would be a huge mistake.”
Regional allies, too, have plenty at stake.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in was instrumental in facilitating the summit and has staked much of his political capital on a rapprochement with Pyongyang.
Japan has not been engaging with North Korea itself and is counting on the United States to represent its interests — including Pyongyang’s missiles with ranges that can hit Japan and North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the White House this week to press Trump once more before the summit on those issues.
What would be a successful or unsuccessful summit depends on who’s asked.
Victor Cha, top North Korea expert in the George W. Bush administration who Trump considered for South Korea ambassador, said a worst-case scenario would be that Trump puts everything on the table, prompting Kim to either balk — leading to Trump giving up — or make a vague proclamation of denuclearizing — leading to Trump declaring victory.
Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said he is afraid of a summit that is only a photo opportunity.
“If there’s a Donald Trump-Kim summit, and there is no nuclear deal, and we give Kim the ultimate prize, which is a handshake with the leader of the free world, I think it would be a historic mistake,” he said. “Irregardless of where anyone is on the political spectrum, you got to get something for that photo.”
A more middle-of-the-road result could be for statements about denuclearization followed by more high-level negotiations. But that could lead to a situation similar to previous failed agreements where North Korea dragged out its end of the deal for years before reneging.
“Even the Agreed Framework, we knew it failed in 2002 for sure, but for a long time we thought it was successful,” Terry said. “So what I’m saying is, we could have an agreement. North Korea does not have a problem with coming to an agreement. We can have an agreement, and it could even look successful for a while. And I’m thinking even like a five-year timeframe. And then they can drag this out. And then we’ll find out later that, obviously, we didn’t get there in terms of, you know, our goal, which is complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of their program.”
Suzanne DiMaggio, director and senior fellow at New America, said a statement on denuclearization is the best that can be hoped for at this point.
“The best possible outcome I see for this summit is a general outline of an agreement that identifies denuclearization as the end goal of a process to be determined,” she said at a 38 North briefing. “And, for me, the best-case scenario would be, at this point, for President Trump to step back from the process and hand it over to the professional diplomats and negotiators to work out these details.”
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