President Trump has announced his plans to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late February, a follow-up after the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore in June.
Criticized by analysts for the lack of planning, the Singapore summit was predictably short on results. Trump hoped for a unilateral disarmament pledge from North Korea, while Kim wanted relief from sanctions pressure and more international space in which to pursue his nuclear and missile objectives. The Singapore declaration did not produce a formal bilateral deal — and included no new denuclearization pledges from Pyongyang.
What can we expect from next month’s follow-up summit? Probably not much, given the lack of progress since June. Experts have long maintained that Pyongyang has no intention of relinquishing its nuclear weapons. Even after June’s summit, intelligence officials agreed that North Korea is instead looking to buttress its nuclear and missile arsenals. Nonetheless, the administration could still have subsequently sought a concrete, if limited, set of objectives, such as an arms-control agreement and the beginnings of a nonproliferation regimen.
But there’s little sign that the Trump administration has done its homework in the intervening months. Here’s why that’s a problem for Summit: Episode 2.
With Trump running the show, there’s no U.S. policy process.
To bypass the pomp and circumstance of summitry and engage in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, a first step would have been to develop a standing channel for negotiations with Pyongyang. This means tapping into a small group of experts on both sides to address highly technical and sensitive national security matters.
The State Department seemed to have such a process in mind when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed Steve Beigun to lead negotiations. But North Korean officials were slow to meet with Beigun and canceled several of his trips to the region. This leaves Pompeo himself to direct the working-level negotiations with North Korea — but Kim spurned Pompeo, opting to go to a potato farm instead of meet with the secretary of state.
Since Singapore, however, Trump has received several letters from Kim. The North Koreans seem to want to conduct diplomacy through the U.S. president — but acquiescing to their preferences leaves U.S. diplomats hamstrung.
If this process continues, it is difficult to imagine how the administration will transform a photo op into a rigorous arms-control regimen. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a second, ill-prepared summit may now be substituting for the serious and sustained diplomacy required after Singapore.
The U.S. ignored the fact that sequencing matters.
A major negotiation over nuclear and missile programs requires careful sequencing — identifying each party’s priorities, and a sense of when the parties can reasonably pursue each objective. Beyond the United States and North Korea, other parties are involved, notably South Korea, an important U.S. ally with a big stake in the outcome.
The Singapore declaration commits Kim to a vague and open-ended denuclearization pledge but also promises improved U.S.-North Korea ties and a peace regimen for the Korean Peninsula. For the United States, a logical first step would be to coordinate with allies on how to approach all three initiatives. From the North Korean perspective, the denuclearization pledge appears third in priority, following improved relations and peace.
Bilateral talks appeared to stall this past summer over precisely this issue — Pyongyang refused to talk nukes without U.S. moves toward a peace treaty. In all likelihood, Kim signed on to the Singapore statement with no near-term intention to denuclearize, believing the total transformation of the bilateral relationship and a peace regimen to be fanciful prerequisites.
The U.S. side apparently did not understand quite how much sequencing would matter in the eyes of its counterparts. These sequencing problems occurred while inter-Korean peace talks continued between Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea — further separating the United States from its closest ally on issues concerning the future of security on the Korean Peninsula.
As my colleague Van Jackson has observed, Kim may well be using these tactical process delays to gain strategic advantage — and the United States in essence aided him by misinterpreting how his priorities would affect talks.
There’s still no road map toward arms control — or anything else.
Even if North Korea isn’t going to give up its nuclear weapons, there are things worth talking about, as Mark Bell noted here at the Monkey Cage. For North Korea, the most important first step to demonstrate an intent to restrain its nuclear and missile programs would be to make a declaration that accounted for its stockpiles.
Experts have few illusions that Pyongyang’s nuclear manifest would be accurate, but without some rough accounting of the illicit weapons North Korea possesses, the United States cannot devise a realistic approach that would seek to limit them. Pompeo reportedly proposed that North Korea disclose these numbers, and Pyongyang summarily rejected the idea.
To date, then, North Korea’s only actions have been unilateral. Pyongyang destroyed a nuclear and a missile test site, which most experts agree were superficial attempts to appease and distract the United States while it focused its work elsewhere. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency observed North Korea continuing to expand its nuclear facilities, and recent reporting reveals previously undisclosed missile sites.
It is important to note that in these expanded activities, Kim is not cheating — he never made any specific promises about test sites or any other infrastructure development. The U.S. failure to develop a clear action plan for bringing North Korea’s capabilities into check, though, leaves Kim with ample freedom to build up North Korea’s nuclear programs.
The progress and process failures after the first summit are clear, as statements from senior U.S. officials suggest. National security adviser John Bolton conceded that North Korea has taken few meaningful steps toward denuclearization. And Vice President Pence noted that Trump will use the second summit to “lay out expectations with North Korea,” raising the obvious question of what purpose was served by the first summit and subsequent eight months.
Indeed, as this second high-level meeting approaches, much of the analysis from the prior summit still seems to apply. This is no coincidence. With substantial relief from international pressure, and warmer U.S.-North Korea ties, the months since Singapore have essentially given Kim a free pass. Yes, limited arms control and nonproliferation objectives remain possible at this next summit — but these require a very different diplomatic approach.
Mira Rapp-Hooper is a senior research scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.