The High Stakes of a Trump-Kim Summit

By: Evan Cooper, Columnist

Photo by: Associated Press

We do not know precisely when, where, or even if, a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take place, but public statements indicate such an event is at least a possibility. The stakes of a potential summit would be extremely high, with the potential for a preventative war still on the table for the U.S. while North Korea continues to progress towards delivery systems that can threaten US cities with nuclear destruction. The Trump administration and its South Korean counterparts insist that talks will take place in May, but the rapid development of such plans and lack of recent bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea renders the two countries’ negotiating strategies unclear.[i] However, given the public comments from both President Trump and those currently negotiating with the North Koreans, it is possible to game out possible scenarios, the outcomes of which fall into three general buckets: an official agreement for denuclearization, a compromise deal such as a test ban or statement of intent to denuclearize, or a failure of negotiations.

If talks do occur, at least one side’s position will be clear. The Trump administration has repeatedly stated that the only acceptable outcome is complete North Korean denuclearization and that anything short of such an agreement would be untenable.[ii] This narrow definition of success will make reaching a deal extremely difficult, if not impossible. Though Kim Jong Un was reported to have expressed his desire for denuclearization during his recent visit to China, it is near certain that he is using a significantly different definition of “denuclearization” than the Trump administration.[iii] According to Chinese media, Kim cited the desires of his grandfather and father to one day see the Korean peninsula rid itself of nuclear weapons.[iv] Defining denuclearization as the removal of a nuclear threat from the entire Korean peninsula implies that North Korea would demand the removal of US troops and its protective nuclear umbrella from the South.[v] The North Korean definition is far removed from that of the U.S., which Secretary of State-designee Mike Pompeo described as “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”[vi] For the U.S. to reach such an agreement with a North Korean leader who has rapidly developed a powerful nuclear deterrent would take an extraordinary offer. That North Korea is just now firing up a new reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex signals how committed its leadership is to the nuclear program developed over the course of more than 50 years.[vii] It is not impossible for the two sides find a common definition of denuclearization, sign a mutually agreeable deal, and implement a monitoring regime, but the chances of such an outcome are minute, to say the very least.

While the U.S. seems unlikely to come away from the talks with a commitment to denuclearize on its terms, there is a possibility that the talks serve as an initial attempt to find common ground and move in an agreed-upon direction towards denuclearization. Such a commitment would meet Trump’s most basic domestic political requirement of having made a “deal” and perhaps tempt Kim by easing some of the many restrictions placed on the North Korean economy. Unfortunately, this outcome would be full of peril for both sides over the long term. Without a verifiable monitoring regime in place, North Korea would have no incentive to meaningfully begin rolling back their program, though a freeze on development as a sign of good faith for the easing of sanctions could occur. If North Korea did eventually violate a freeze by conducting another nuclear test, particularly an atmospheric test as threatened, any goodwill would vanish and the U.S. would likely return to war footing, with the added domestic embarrassment for President Trump of having failed to constrain North Korea.[viii]

There are serious impediments to both sides reaching a compromise short of denuclearization. For the U.S., there is little reason to trust that North Korea will take meaningful steps to denuclearize without intensive monitoring. Even with a monitoring program agreed upon, North Korea violated the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, leading to collapse of the Agreed Framework in 2003 after eight years of the deal being in place, and similarly violated the monitoring requirements established as part of the subsequent Six Party Talks.[ix] On the North Korean side, there are bound to be serious concerns regarding the ability of the U.S. to live up to its end of the deal given the Trump administration’s disdain for (and likely, soon, abrogation of) the Iran deal and the treatment of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein after both leaders gave up their respective weapons programs. North Korean leaders have repeatedly cited all three examples.[x]

A nuclear test ban would be the easiest limited agreement for the U.S. to enforce, and would act as a defacto freeze on their nuclear weapons program and it would accomplish the goal of limiting North Korea’s ability to strike major US cities. But with the Trump administration sticking publicly to the denuclearization requirement, such a deal seems unlikely to be reached without President Trump suffering a domestic loss.

While there are serious obstacles to both potential denuclearization agreements and partial compromises, far and away the most concerning outcome would be a failure of the leaders to reach an agreement. Such a failure would likely be used by President Trump to affirm his previous assertions that “Talking is not the answer!” and likely return him to his “fire and fury” position.[xi] With John Bolton, who recently advocated for a preventative war against North Korea, now installed as Trump’s National Security Adviser, there is certain to be at least a faction within the administration pushing for war if talks fall through.[xii] The rhetoric Trump has routinely employed about the dangers of North Korea would make some type of action inevitable in the absence of an agreement, and military action appears the prime candidate.

A meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, if it does occur, will be a high stakes diplomatic showdown, one of the most important summits between heads of state in modern history. If a massive and deadly war is to be avoided, the two sides must reach an agreement, if only an interim one. With so much riding on the results, one would hope every effort would be made to find a compromise. But with Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un on either side of the negotiating table, the outcome is far from predictable.







[i]Julian Borger, “Kim Jong-un to meet Trump by May after North Korea invitation,” The Guardian, March 9, 2018,

[ii] Yuna Park and Roberta Rampton, “White House: Talks with North Korea must lead to ending nuclear program,” Reuters, Feb. 25, 2018,

[iii] Josh Smith, “Differing views of ‘denuclearization’ complicate North Korea talks,” Reuters, March 28, 2018,

[iv] “Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un hold talks in Beijing,” Xinhua News Agency, March 28, 2018,

[v] Lucy Hornby and Jack Kim, “Kim Jong-il says wants denuclearization of peninsula,” Reuters, Jan. 22, 2009,

[vi] Seung Min Kim, “Trump administration: No concessions to North Korea in talks,” Washington Post, March 11, 2018,

[vii] K.K. Rebecca Lai, William J. Broad, and David Sanger, “North Korea Is Firing Up a Reactor. That Could Upset Trump’s Talks With Kim.” The New York Times, March 27, 2018,

[viii] “North Korea diplomat says take atmospheric nuclear test threat ‘literally’,” Reuters, Oct. 25, 2017,

[ix] “Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, Oct. 26, 2011,; “The U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, August 13, 2017,

[x] Gardiner Harris, “U.S. Taking Negotiations ‘One Week at a Time’ on Expiring Iran Deal,” The New York Times, March 21, 2018,; “North Korea cites Muammar Gaddafi’s ‘destruction’ in nuclear test defence,” The Telegraph, Jan. 9, 2016,

[xi] Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!,” Aug. 30, 2017,

[xii] John Bolton, “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 28, 2018,

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