A while ago, a colleague of mine made the argument that President Trump was, if so inclined, almost uniquely capable of negotiating with North Korea. Trump and Kim Jong Eun share a transactional approach to diplomacy; they both envision themselves much as the CEOs of national corporations. They also both seem to have an excessive appreciation of symbolic military extravagance; it’s easy to imagine each being impressed by the presentation that the other puts on. And Trump lacks many of the establishment hangups that can prevent diplomatic breakthroughs, although we should acknowledge that many of those hangups are there for good reasons. And it seems that Trump is more or less insulated from disruptive, consequential criticism from the American right.
But of course the parameters of the possible are limited. It is extremely unlikely that North Korea will agree to give up either its nuclear weapon or ballistic missile programs, US concessions notwithstanding. The United States cannot credibly commit to *not* attacking North Korea, and not just because of the rhetoric of the Trump administration; the basic imbalance of capabilities and the recent history of US military action make it impossible for anyone to believe such a security guarantee. On the American side, it would be extremely difficult to pull of a major withdrawal of forces, and it would be a bad idea in any case; without a clear US security guarantee, it is extremely likely that South Korea would develop its own nuclear program, probably with Japan not far behind.
But as Mark Bell lays out, it’s still possible to envision some areas of productive discussion. Controlling the export of nuclear (and more optimistically, ballistic missile) technology would be a major achievement, as would the reintroduction of certain confidence building measures that have fallen by the wayside over the course of the last decade. Limiting the overall size of the North Korean nuclear arsenal would be great, but I suspect it’s a stretch. Having achieved its central goal of developing a nuclear arsenal and capable delivery systems, North Korea may well be willing to negotiate on secondary issues in the hopes of easing the economic straitjacket.
The problem is that, in any kind of serious summit negotiation, Trump would need to be *extremely* well-briefed on the issues. If he isn’t, we run the risk of coming to agreements which one side or the other is not realistically capable of pulling off, which leads to frustration, which increases the chance of conflict.