Make sure 3rd N. Korea summit is worth the trip
Working-level talks in Sweden to lay the groundwork for a third summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un fell apart in early October. Since then relations have become more fraught. Pyongyang has warned Washington that it will be less interested in diplomacy if no deal is made by the end of 2019. There is a slim possibility — but a possibility nonetheless — of another attempt at a third summit.
Washington should focus on maintaining peace through crisis management and deterrence, not repeating failed demands for denuclearization.
The stakes are high and it’s important to get this right. Pyongyang recently tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile and may eventually test intercontinental ballistic missiles. Although denuclearization is a desirable outcome, it is currently an unrealistic one and should not be the goal of a third summit.
During the collapsed Sweden negotiations, the deal on the table appeared to be a swap of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon for a limited suspension of certain sanctions. Unfortunately, even this limited denuclearization went nowhere. Because this was a nonstarter, Trump and Kim should instead establish liaison offices to improve their communication and future crisis management.
Talking to a hostile power is useful because it helps prevent miscommunication and misperception — especially during a crisis — that might cause an accident or misunderstanding that spirals into war. The previous two summits in Singapore and Hanoi helped both leaders learn more about each other, but there were never enough details hammered out at working-level talks beforehand to do more than lower tensions. The most recent meeting between Trump and Kim was a handshake “mini-summit” at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas on June 30. This was a positive symbolic gesture designed to generate goodwill and restart productive talks.
The DMZ meeting was good in that it helped avoid a return to threats and the escalatory days of “fire and fury” in 2017. A return to such dangerous rhetoric might happen going into 2020 if no progress is made.
This is why pragmatic, peace-building goals are the way forward. Trump previously rushed ahead without enough preparation in pursuit of a “big” deal, and Kim stubbornly refused to let his negotiators meet with their American counterparts in advance. Another summit must be worth it and both sides should meet ahead of time to work out a de-escalation mechanism.
Summits for their own sake with photo-ops can help keep the diplomatic ball rolling, but there is a limit to how long that will be worth the effort. The United States can deter North Korea indefinitely, but time is running out for Trump to make a deal. Even without Kim’s self-imposed deadline, South Korea and the United States have elections coming up that will distract from or could even delay negotiations. All these dates are coming fast, and now the impeachment inquiry into Trump is occupying his administration’s finite bandwidth.
Combined, all of this means any agreement that could realistically be reached in a third summit will necessarily have to be modest — and set a strong foundation for future progress on peace and stability. Thankfully, liaison offices fit the bill and are a better means to advance U.S. security and national interests than a flashier but ultimately unattainable denuclearization agreement. Kim will almost certainly never give up his nuclear weapons. He knows a nuclear arsenal ensures his regime’s survival.
As frustrating as this is, Washington can continue to deter North Korea. America has the most powerful conventional and nuclear force on the planet. As long as Kim does not think he is under an imminent threat from the U.S., he will not start a nuclear conflict he knows he would lose. This is a good thing.
When mistrust abounds and countries can never be sure of each other’s intentions, it is ever more vital for both sides to talk to each other. Liaison offices would calm rising tensions and make it easier to inform each other of actions — such as military exercises or accidents — that might be incorrectly interpreted as provocative. Because there are no formal embassies or similar diplomatic channels between Washington and Pyongyang, liaison offices ought to be the primary goal of a third summit.
Without liaison offices or a similar de-escalation mechanism, a third summit that does nothing on denuclearization has no value for either side. America and North Korea could attempt to trade limited sanctions suspension for some limited disarmament, but that will be difficult. It would be better to come back with liaison offices rather than nothing because of an impasse over denuclearization and sanctions. In the meantime, both leaders should resume working-level talks and only meet when they have a functional agreement settled beforehand. A fleeting opportunity to advance peace for decades to come still exists for Trump and Kim if they are willing to seize it.
John Dale Grover is a fellow with Defense Priorities. He is also a Korean Studies Fellow and an assistant managing editor at The National Interest.