6 June 2018
Next Tuesday at 9.00 am in Singapore, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will meet at the Capella hotel, the first such encounter between a US president and a North Korean leader. The aim is to negotiate a far-reaching deal to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program, but the two sides have already struggled to resolve who should pay for North Korea’s accommodation.
This minor spat is a reminder of the risk that the summit poses: it pushes a decades-old crisis closer to an outcome, without the diplomatic groundwork that would help to assure its success.
Trump thinks he can achieve a deal with North Korea. But this summit also makes the alternative more likely: a catastrophic war and unthinkable turmoil across South Korea, Japan and China, with devastating consequences across the region, including for Australia.
A meeting of enemies is cause for hope, especially when it involves a nation as isolated as North Korea. This summit, for instance, will mark the furthest Kim has travelled from home since he became leader in 2011.
But each side appears to be coming to the talks with a very different understanding of the other’s reasons for being there. Trump believes that his policy of “maximum pressure” – crippling international sanctions, along with his taunts and a professed willingness to use his nuclear button – has finally convinced Kim to compromise or face destruction.
The problem is that, as is so often the case with North Korea, it is impossible to know if this is correct. Kim may be coming to the summit because he believes that his recent nuclear tests have been a success and have finally demonstrated to Trump and the international community that they have no choice but to engage with him. This would make it even less likely that Kim would dismantle a program that marks his only path to recognition and the legitimacy he seems to crave.
The summit is starting where most crisis resolution ends. Previous United States presidents chose not to meet with North Korean leaders because they had little confidence that it would deliver a deal that would last – to succeed in dismantling Kim’s nuclear program, any agreement would need to be in place, and adhered to, for at least a decade.
In standard diplomatic negotiations, leaders are brought in only when the two sides are close to completing a deal; the leaders come in, if they do at all, to help resolve final points of contention. The Iran nuclear deal, for instance, which Trump recently abandoned, was 154 pages long and took more than two years to negotiate. It began with a series of secret talks and meetings in which each side tested the other’s sincerity. After the first such meeting – which took place at an airport in Oman in 2012 and lasted ten hours – three White House negotiators concluded that Iran was not genuine and cancelled further talks, which did not resume for more than six months. The negotiations were not concluded until 2015 and, whatever the deal’s drawbacks, official observers have repeatedly confirmed that Iran is complying with it.
This groundwork, as far as we know, has not occurred in the lead-up to next week’s summit in Singapore. North Korea enters the talks with a consistent record of deception about its nuclear program. Trump enters with his showman’s swagger, and may prove to be more interested in the theatrics of a deal than in its detail.
Trump may also be impatient, understandably, with the duration of this crisis, which has worked in North Korea’s favour. And this impatience may lead him to push the impasse toward an outcome, whatever it may be. He appears to honestly believe he can address the issue of North Korea, and he comes armed with a new crop of belligerent advisors, such as John Bolton, his national security adviser, who are deeply sceptical about the prospects for reaching a lasting agreement with Pyongyang. They have supported the summit but may also help convince Trump to be comfortable with failure, and all that it entails.