In keeping with his reputation as the global disrupter-in-chief, US President Donald Trump’s unprecedented acceptance of a face-to-face meeting with North Korea’s strongman Kim Jong-un in May has created a political whiplash. While most experts have only focused on the nuclear dimension, this initiative, if it is to materialize, is likely to have international repercussions well beyond the nuclear realm.
In its most optimistic rendering, the Kim-Trump summit might be akin to the dramatic US opening up to China by president Richard Nixon in 1971-72. Nixon’s trip to China was a high-stakes gamble as there was no certainty that he would meet chairman Mao Zedong. However, the run-up to the historic Nixon-Mao summit and beyond significantly changed the course of international relations. Washington infamously tilted towards Pakistan and China, turned a blind eye to the ongoing brutality of the cultural revolution, supported China’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, hastened the end of the Cold War, and contributed to China’s eventual economic rise. Consequently, today China has emerged as an economic and, increasingly, strategic peer to the US.
The upcoming summit’s most pessimistic outcome might be like the first and, perhaps, most disastrous meeting of the Cold War between the young and newly elected US president John F. Kennedy and the older and experienced Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. The seasoned communist apparatchik pummelled and harangued the neophyte president. After the summit, Khrushchev dismissed the youthful president as “too intelligent and too weak" while Kennedy, a seasoned veteran of World War II, admitted that the meeting was the “roughest thing in my life". Partly on account of his impression of Kennedy’s lack of resolve, Khrushchev felt emboldened to plant nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, and risk the possibility of a nuclear war.
If these extreme outcomes were to be played out in a Kim-Trump summit, then the most positive scenario might be normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang, including the lifting of sanctions and a tacit acceptance of North Korea’s latent nuclear capabilities (even if they were given up), a permanent rift in the China-North Korean alliance, and the guaranteed survival of the Kim regime. In this scenario, it is also conceivable that North and South Korea might well develop a tacit, if not formal, alliance. Such a development on one hand might lead Tokyo to question Washington’s security commitments, while, on the other, an isolated China, concerned about the loss of its only ally in the region, might become more belligerent.
In contrast, a failure of the summit might lead to a dangerous escalation in the region. North Korea will most likely resume nuclear and long-range missile tests and also operationalize its arsenal, while the US might feel compelled to take stringent actions, such as a quarantine of North Korean ports and possibly military action against nuclear and missile targets. Such a scenario might also bring North Korea closer into China’s fold and will most likely see the end of South Korea’s rapprochement and a strengthening of the US-South Korean military alliance. This more belligerent approach in turn once again raises the spectre of a devastating nuclear confrontation with global consequences.
While neither extreme scenario is likely to manifest, the prospect of failure far exceeds the chance of success for a number of reasons. First, unlike the previous historic summits, the level of preparation for the Kim-Trump summit is appallingly poor. In both the Nixon-Mao and the Kennedy-Khrushchev meetings, there were months, if not years, of preparation. Moreover, given the recent change of guard and crucial vacant positions (including that of the US ambassador to South Korea) at the US state department, the preparations will be far from optimal even by May. Although the new US secretary of state, and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo, is far better equipped to carry out the pre-summit negotiations (since the CIA was dealing with North Korea; Rex Tillerson, the previous incumbent was out of the loop) he takes over a department that is demoralized and in disarray.
Second, both Nixon and Kennedy were seasoned politicians with significant diplomatic experience. In the present instance, neither Kim nor Trump are versatile politicians or particularly diplomatic. Indeed, in the run-up to even the doomed Kennedy-Khrushchev meet, both sides spent months in polite and positive diplomatic exchanges. In contrast, Kim and Trump have railed against each other in the most undiplomatic and unproductive manner. Trump threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury" and insulted “Rocket Man" Kim for being on a “suicide mission", while Kim equally churlishly retorted by calling Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard"; not the best prelude for a historic meeting.
Finally, the lack of preparation, coupled with uncertainty over a neutral venue for the meeting, and the mercurial character of the key protagonists, might yet lead to an abandonment of the summit. While holding a productive summit should be the easy part, it would be a significant achievement if the meeting was held at all. If the deliberations actually produce an agreement, it would be a significant breakthrough. However, if the agreement is successfully implemented, it would be nothing short of a miracle. Sadly, miracles are in short supply.
W.P.S. Sidhu is professor at New York University’s Centre for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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