Much attention is being paid to the summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. The one-on-one meeting with just translators present begins at 9:00am Tuesday morning Singapore time which is 9:00pm ET Monday night. Aides and national security advisors will join them later. We know for certain that whatever the outcome, the summit will be a great success. Why? Because Trump will tell everyone that it was. He will tell us that it was the biggest and greatest summit meeting ever, even if the final deal is that the US agrees to give Alaska and Manhattan to North Korea and the meeting ends with Kim mooning Trump.
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo seems to think that the US can offer sufficient incentives to get something significant in return from North Korea, without specifying exactly what is being offered or what the word ‘denuclearization’ implies.
“It is the case we are prepared to give security assurances necessary for the North Koreans to engage in … denuclearisation,” Pompeo told reporters. “We are prepared to take actions that will provide them sufficient certainty that they can be comfortable that denuclearisation isn’t something that ends badly for them.”
He added: “We are prepared to make … security assurances that are different, [more] unique than, what America has been willing to provide previously. We think this is both necessary and appropriate.”
One big question is why the North Koreans would believe any assurances that the US gives them. The history of the US is riddled with so many cases of interfering with the internal affairs of other nations, overthrowing governments, and making agreements only to unilaterally renege on them when they were no longer convenient. The word of the US government cannot be trusted. Trump has made this even clearer than his more smooth-talking predecessors.
The other related question is what the North Koreans would gain by giving up their nuclear weapons, which is clearly what the US seems to be aiming for. The North Koreans have got the US to take them seriously only because they have nuclear weapons. Without them, they would long ago have met the fate of Iraq, Libya, and the many other countries that have been destabilized and invaded. Trump could promise them financial incentives for complete denuclearization such as lifting the trade sanctions but North Korea has resisted such offers before and although from the outside life seems grim in this very authoritarian state, the country seems to somehow get along. Would they accept short-term financial gain for long-term uncertainty about the threat of a US attack or invasion? On a more personal level, would Kim take the risk of his life ending up like Saddam Hussein or Mohammed Ghaddafi?
Although Kim is only 36, young by the standards of national leaders, he has been in power since 2011 and so cannot be treated as a naïve rookie and easily outmaneuvered. Unlike Trump, who seems to think that preparation for such meetings is a sign of weakness and that the sheer force of his personality can bend people to his will, Kim would have been thoroughly briefed.
But whatever the outcome, it is better for nations to talk than to not talk. Even if the talks end up with no deal at all but just an agreement to talk some more, with the meaning of the word denuclearization left ambiguous, that would still be better that nothing. Even a return to the status quo would not be a catastrophe.
So I do not expect much from this summit but I do not fear a disaster either.