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Making sense of the canceled North Korea summit

- May 25, 2018
A combination photo shows President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool/Korea Summit/Reuters)

On Thursday, President Trump announced that he was canceling the planned June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Many saw this development as a missed opportunity.

Trump himself called it a “tremendous setback.” But the reason the summit did not take place is easy to understand: There is no reason to negotiate if there is not a deal to be had.

Kim Jong Un wants to have his cake and eat it, too

The United States and international community’s long-stated goal is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But Kim will be reluctant to give up the nuclear weapons he sees as the key to guaranteeing his regime survival.

He might be willing to consider dismantling nuclear weapons if he believed the “maximum pressure” campaign against him threatened to destabilize his regime. However, we have not yet seen that level of pressure.

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Most likely, Kim agreed to the summit in the hope of having his cake and eating it, too: nuclear weapons and sanctions relief. After all, both his father and grandfather pretended they might denuclearize in the past. They managed to receive relief from the international community, while retaining and advancing their nuclear programs.

Progress would reduce both sides’ motivations to fulfill their promises

Even if Kim had every intention of moving toward denuclearization, getting a final agreement would still be difficult. Political scientists James Fearon and Robert Powell have shown how shifts in the balance of power complicate efforts to make “credible commitments.” To strike a successful deal, Kim would have to credibly commit to denuclearize — and the United States and the international community would need to credibly commit to delivering a raft of benefits, including diplomatic normalization, promises the United States will not invade and economic engagement.

But concluding such a deal would shift the balance of power in ways that would tempt both sides to renege. Severe international pressure may persuade Kim to promise denuclearization. But with sanctions lifted, aid flowing in and the North Korean economy starting to improve, Kim might rethink whether to dismantle his nuclear and missile program. He could stop short of denuclearization — keeping some of his nuclear program to achieve his long-standing goal of becoming a recognized nuclear-armed power.

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Consider how pressure on North Korea has lightened simply because of a possible summit. The Trump administration has stopped its threats of “fire and fury.” South Korea turned off loudspeakers pumping propaganda into the North. Western countries scrapped plans to use military interdictions to stop North Korea and its allies from evading sanctions. Having already won some of what he sought, why would Kim need to go further?

Meanwhile, Washington and its allies have been willing to consider lifting sanctions and delivering aid because they fear the growing and grave North Korean nuclear threat. But once North Korea got rid of its nuclear weapons and facilities, the West would feel less motivation to engage with North Korea economically and diplomatically. Recent discussion of how Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was treated after he abandoned his WMD programs made this quite clear.

In other words, even if both sides sincerely intend to reach a deal on denuclearization, they both have good reason to doubt that the other will deliver.

Political scientist Barbara Walter has shown how, in civil wars, third-party guarantors can help overcome “credible commitment” problems. But there is no third-party guarantor powerful enough to enforce an agreement between Washington and Pyongyang. The United States, the most powerful country on Earth and therefore the most able to play such a role, is a party to this dispute.

Why negotiate if there’s no possibility of a deal?

Many observers believe that, in general, talks can bring parties together — and wonder why two disputing sides don’t at least try negotiations. But political scientist Fearon has shown that serious and detailed diplomacy is irrational if there’s little or no hope of achieving an enforceable agreement.

Sure, Kim and Trump could have attended the summit and discussed denuclearization. Perhaps they could have even agreed to the broad outlines of a deal. But even then, much could have gone wrong.

What’s more, recent weeks have brought signs that the summit would not be successful. Most notably, North Korean negotiators failed to show up for a preparatory meeting in Singapore.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/01/03/why-nuclear-war-with-north-korea-is-less-likely-than-you-think/?utm_term=.66e057a4d75f”]Why nuclear war with North Korea is less likely than you think[/interstitial_link]

Given these realities, canceling the summit makes sense. As Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator with the North, said, “If North Korea is not serious about denuclearization as understood generally, it would have been dangerous to hold the summit as scheduled.”

What should we expect next?

Right now, conditions aren’t ripe for a deal. And they may never be. But both sides will nevertheless continue to try to enhance their leverage. North Korea will probably go back to expanding its nuclear and missile program, warning of a “nuclear showdown.” And the United States has promised to maintain “maximum pressure” until Kim takes concrete steps toward denuclearizing.

In short, we should expect more of the tense standoff we witnessed last summer.

That outcome certainly will not be as pleasant as high-profile talks leading to denuclearization, but it is easy to understand.

Matthew Kroenig is an associate professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and the deputy director for strategy in the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council.