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Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un could end in catastrophe — but that may be the point

Kim Jong Un
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Inter-Korean Summit at the Peace House on April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea.

Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images


President Donald Trump is set to make history on June 12 in Singapore as the first sitting US president to meet a sitting North Korean leader with peace and denuclearization are on the table.

But if the summit fails, it could end in catastrophe, and that may be the point.

As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes trips to probe North Korea’s willingness to go through with denuclearization, something it has promised and reneged on multiple times in the past, Trump’s stance on Pyongyang has emerged as very hardline.

Pompeo has demanded the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea before the US offers any easing of economic sanctions on Pyongyang.

So far, North Korea has appeared amenable to these requests, but experts remain highly doubtful.

The end result could be a mediocre outcome sandwiched between two possible catastrophes

A view of the newly developed intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15’s test that was successfully launched, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang November 30, 2017.

Reuters

“There are two extremely unlikely outcomes” for the summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, said Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert at MIT.

The first unlikely outcome, Narang told Business Insider, is that “Trump walks away with Kim’s nuclear weapons,” and the second is”catastrophic failure.”

Narang said that more likely, Kim and Trump will partake in a photo shoot with handshakes and kind words. In that scenario, the US would accept some mixture of half measures to slowly wind down North Korea’s nuclear programs while providing them with sanctions relief — much like the deals that have previously failed.

Narang called this outcome “kicking the can down the road,” because it would likely only delay a serious confrontation between the US and North Korea over real denuclearization.

But Narang said that one theory is that Trump, or Kim, intended the summit to end badly.

Great expectations, extreme consequences

Korean War veterans react as they shout slogans to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War at Kim Il-sung Square, in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. North Korea celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Korean War truce on Saturday with a massive military parade trumpeting the revolutionary genius of three generations of leaders that gave it “Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War”.

REUTERS/Jason Lee

A major element of Kim’s pivot toward diplomacy appears to be swaying public opinion. Meanwhile, Trump’s administration also touts his achievements on North Korea as evidence of his presidency’s successes.

But both parties come to the talks with seemingly impossible expectations. North Korea reportedly asks virtually nothing of the US, while the US asks North Korea to disarm completely and immediately.

Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert and senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, tweeted that the summit’s “biggest problem” was “overinflated expectations.”

The US wants North Korea to lay down its arms before a US dime heads to Pyongyang, and Kim wants US and international tensions to thaw to kick-start its stalled economy. Both parties want what they want fast, and only one party can get its way.

“Whatever exactly the North Koreans hope to get out of the June summit, it doesn’t sound like it overlaps very much with what Mike Pompeo is outlining,” Pollack tweeted.

If both parties go in with flawed expectations for the summit, as it appears from public statements they have, the talks could end very badly.

“Kim’s strategy is smart,” Narang said, referring to the vague promises of denuclearization from North Korea. “If it looks like Trump is the one walking away, then it looks like Kim wins.”

If Kim leaves the summit saying Trump spoiled the deal, then the temperature on the Korean Peninsula goes up “astronomically,” Narang said.

Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with knowledge of Trump’s thinking on North Korea, recently told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the worst-case scenario for the talks would be for the US and Pyongyang to “walk out of this thing angry at each other, with deflated expectations — and then there’s no place left to go, there’s no more diplomacy, because you’ve used your biggest card right up front.”

If both parties exit the talks with no deal and no progress, Trump and Kim could easily find themselves going back to nuclear threats, but this time without the prospect of talks to keep them from the brink of military conflict.

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