U.S.-North Korea Summit Begins Tuesday

Elliott School Korea expert Gregg Brazinsky weighs in ahead of the meetings in Singapore.

U.S.-North Korea Summit will happen June 12 in Singapore.
(Courtesy of CCAS)
June 11, 2018

By Tatyana Hopkins

The first-ever meeting between a sitting American president and a leader of North Korea is set to take place at the Capella Hotel on Singapore’s Sanders Island on Tuesday. But questions remain about what specifics will be on the agenda.

Since the announcement of the summit in March, leaders on both sides have pulled out and then re-embraced the idea of the planned negotiation sessions several times, with President Donald Trump reaffirming the meeting as recently as June 1. Mr. Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un will likely discuss the possibility of the denuclearization of North Korea and past American sanctions and diplomatic pressures enacted to pressure Mr. Kim to rid his county of nuclear weapons.

Ahead of the summit, George Washington University Associate Professor Gregg Brazinsky, an Elliott School of International Affairs expert on relations between the United States and Asia, discussed the historic meeting and possible outcomes with GW Today.

Q:  Are chances better for any positive result in these negotiations compared with past discussions between the United States and North Korea?

A: While a good outcome can never be guaranteed, I do think these negotiations have a better chance to succeed than past discussions for several reasons. First, both President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have strong motivations to see the summit yield at least a modest success. Trump has billed himself as a dealmaker who can make progress where others could not. Summitry with North Korea may be his best hope of demonstrating this. North Korea has likely achieved most of its goals in terms of advancing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. A successful meeting with Trump could bolster the legitimacy of the regime both domestically and internationally. There will also likely be a peace dividend for both sides. Sanctions on North Korea would be lifted while any reduction in the threat of instability on the Korean Peninsula would likely strengthen international markets.

Q: Is Mr. Trump likely to press Mr. Kim for a pledge to give up his country's nuclear weapons? If so, what would the United States have to offer in exchange?

A: Yes, I think the basic goal of the meeting is to get North Korea to denuclearize, although the two sides may have different interpretations of what exactly denuclearization means and how swiftly it should be implemented. The Trump administration wants to achieve "Complete Verifiable Irreversible Dismantlement” (CVID) of North Korea's nuclear program. It's not clear that the North Koreans will agree to this. 

The United States has much that it can offer in exchange. This might start with the lifting of sanctions. If the talks are successful it could lead to even more significant changes. One symbolically important thing that Trump could offer is a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War. In 1953, the war ended in an armistice, which is still the only agreement preventing renewed conflict. Signing the peace treaty might in turn lead to normalizing relations between Washington and Pyongyang and exchanging ambassadors. Finally, if the talks are very successful and North Korea demonstrates a genuine commitment to change, there could even be American investment in and economic aid to North Korea. Of course, most of this would not happen right away. Nonetheless, the United States really does have a lot of carrots that it can offer to the North Koreans if they denuclearize. The best-case scenario (and this is far from guaranteed) would be a major shift in the tone and nature of the U.S.-North Korea relationship in which the United States helps to integrate North Korea into the international community and this shift, in turn, encourages slow reform within North Korea.

Q:  How important a consideration are the concerns and reactions from countries other than the United States and North Korea to any agreements or summit failure? And what countries should concern U.S. leadership most? 

A: Obviously, the response of the international community and especially our allies in Asia will be an important concern. The country that the United States needs to coordinate most closely with is South Korea. The South Korean President Moon Jae In has played a pivotal role in getting North Korea to embrace rapprochement and Seoul will no doubt be watching the summit very closely.

Japan also has an interest in the outcome of the summit. Japan's relations with Korea and China have been strained during the last few years because of Tokyo's unwillingness to show contrition for the atrocities committed by Japanese troops prior to and during World War II. At the same time, it has constantly brought up the issue of Japanese nationals who were abducted by North Korea, and the government hopes that the summit might make progress on this issue. Finally, many of North Korea's missile launches have flown near or over Japanese territory, and Tokyo likely hopes that negotiations can bring an end to this. Given that U.S. troops are still stationed in Japan, Trump will have to pay at least some attention to these concerns.

Finally, China has taken a keen interest in the talks as evidenced by Kim Jong Un's recent meeting with Xi Jinping. China and the United States share an interest in stability on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, Beijing does not want to be pushed to the sidelines in U.S.-North Korea talks. It also might have some concern that the talks will go too well and its influence over North Korea will no longer be paramount. 

Q: What will be the most likely outcome of the summit?

A:  With unpredictable leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, speculating about what the future holds is difficult. CVID likely won't come about immediately after the summit. But I do hope that the summit can lay out a roadmap for getting us there through trust-building measures implemented over a multiyear period. Even if CVID is not achieved right away, I think there is potential for the summit to greatly improve stability in the Asia Pacific and reduce the risk of war. If there is a general improvement in the overall climate of relations, for instance, even in the absence of immediate agreement on all specifics, North Korea might stop carrying out missile tests and enter into more protracted negotiations on denuclearization. During Nixon's early meetings with Mao Zedong and Reagan's early meetings with Gorbachev, specific agreements on all issues were not reached right away, but the meetings nonetheless did much to reduce the history of hostility between the U.S. and its adversaries. I think an important starting point is dealing with the long history of mutual enmity that has existed between the United States and North Korea.

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