The most worrisome possible result of this week’s summit between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is not that North Korea won't denuclearize — it won’t — but that the president will foolishly take a bad deal that leaves the United States less secure.
The pre-summit speculation is that Kim will offer up an old nuclear test site or two, a rocket test stand and maybe portions of the Yongbyon nuclear site for international inspection. This may look good to Trump, but none of that is a big win in the world of nuclear diplomacy.
If that is all that Kim has to offer, the president is unfortunately still unlikely to walk away, given his self-aggrandizing quest for the Nobel Peace Prize. He will argue that closing the nuclear test site and rocket stand are achievements that belong to no other U.S. president — which would be factually accurate but materially irrelevant, given the scope of the North Korean nuclear program today.
The North Koreans offered to freeze the Yongbyon reactor in 2007, during negotiations for the last agreement on which I worked. And the two likely test sites the North Koreans might offer for inspection — while new locations for U.S. inspectors to peruse — are no longer needed by the North Koreans, as their program has advanced from these facilities. (Moreover, anything of value will have long been removed before any foreigner sets foot on the grounds.) Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un's stockpile of 20-60 nuclear weapons, his uranium enrichment facilities and his 20 operational missiles bases remain untouched by the negotiation to date.
So the operative question is whether Trump will give away too much in Hanoi. Kim will not even immediately hand over those modest concessions, but will try to milk the president for real chits — including a Korean War peace declaration, political recognition, the removal of economic sanctions, the suspension of U.S. military readiness exercises and even reductions in overall U.S. troop levels in South Korea.
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Any, let alone all, of this would be a bad deal for the United States, and it would leave us less secure regardless of the president’s proclamations to the contrary. Indeed, any such concessions would be tantamount to recognizing North Korea as a de facto nuclear state, when it is the world's worst violator of the non-proliferation treaty regime.
The president’s advisors will surely tell him not to trade in our alliance assets for something as unreliable as North Korean promises. But as the president showed in Singapore (when he unilaterally decided to give up joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises to the North Koreans without telling his defense secretary or the South Koreans), he is unpredictable at best and dangerous at worst.
The president should be commended for demonstrating the political will to address the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear threat through summit diplomacy, since only one person in North Korea can make a decision to denuclearize. And summit diplomacy is far better than his "fire and fury" rhetoric in 2017, when it looked like war was possible.
Trump likes to boast that, through that rhetoric, he stopped Kim from testing weapons of mass destruction for the past 15 months by being tough. But the reality is that, historically, North Korea does not shoot missiles off when it is sitting at the negotiating table with the U.S.
What Trump can take credit for is the downturn in conventional military tensions across the border between the two Koreas. It was not too long ago that gunfire and artillery fire were being exchanged across the demilitarized zone because of North Korean soldier defections, or that booby trap landmines maiming South Korean soldiers.
All of that, though, falls short of his stated goals for engagement with North Korea.
Meanwhile, the North Korea's will have been making the most of our president's oft-stated preferences at the negotiating table, which is to leave everything to an executive-to-executive conversation. The North Koreans and Chinese all see the best chances for an advantageous deal coming from the president, not from his policy professionals with expertise in the region.
Thus, very little will have been negotiated with U.S. foreign policy staff in advance of the summit; North Koreans know that Trump’s working level people, unlike Trump, will drive a hard deal calling for a full inventory of all of their capabilities and a two-year timeline for inspection, dismantlement and removal of all of its weapons of mass destruction programs.
And the North Koreans know that the last deal — 10 years ago — fell apart when it came time for the regime to come clean on its weapons programs with a comprehensive declaration. So they prefer to push the negotiations all the way to the top. And, the North Korean leadership has been diligently preparing — but our president, distracted by the Mueller investigation and immigration policy fights, prefers to “wing it.”
So Trump, the self-proclaimed greatest dealmaker, has to avoid getting suckered into a bad deal, even though negotiating North Korean denuclearization is literally rocket science. It is complicated stuff that cannot simply be done through “gut instincts,” as Trump once described his negotiating strategy with Kim.
The president, then, must break from his lack of preparation before Singapore, read his briefing book, push hard for a denuclearization list from Kim Jong Un and jealously guard alliance assets from becoming bargaining chips. To do otherwise would benefit North Korea and China while making Americans less secure.