The historic summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea is only hours away. Minute final preparations, including who will enter a room first, are underway. You can almost hear the whistle from a Wild West movie playing in the background. Will this be a showdown like the O.K. Corral? Or will it be parlayed, as some have suggested, into President Trump’s “Nixon-to-China” moment?
Pundits, policymakers, and citizens are trying to guess the likely outcomes from the meeting. The interested actors are myriad. So what should we expect from this summit?
President Trump and Kim Jong Un want something positive to come out of this meeting. But what each is willing to consider a “positive” outcome may vary widely. In some respects, the meeting itself gives North Korea feelings of power and prestige, as the nation was successful in bringing the U.S. to the table. President Trump’s recent statement that he might invite Kim to the White House if the meeting goes well is an added bonus.
Keep in mind that North Korea and the Kim family have been working toward their goals of securing their state and regime from the global powers that have interfered in their politics since 1948. Their nuclear development was a deliberate step on this path.
The positive aspects of the meeting for President Trump are less clear. Yes, he is the first president to meet with North Korea. But that is not, in any real sense, an achievement, as other presidents certainly could have met with North Korea but chose not to. For instance, toward the end of his term in 2000, President Bill Clinton would eventually decline to meet with Kim Jong Il after efforts at a missile agreement broke down. This means that President Trump needs something to come from the meeting, something tangible, for this to be considered a success.
For President Trump, who said that attitude was more important than preparation for this meeting, what he expects to achieve is the focus of some debate. The contentious G7 meetings that are preceding the summit are likely to influence President Trump’s approach and expectations. Should he go into the meeting looking for a “big” win, such as denuclearization to offset the G7 arguments, he may end up shooting himself in the foot.
Tensions have already emerged after Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor John Bolton both suggested a “Libya Model”—where North Korea gives up all of its weapons of mass destruction in exchange for economic assistance. A North Korean official called Vice President Pence a “political dummy” for even voicing this suggestion. North Korea is well aware of what happened to Qaddafi and Libya (eventual murder and mayhem). The Libya Model is not really applicable anyway, as Kim Jong Un has nuclear weapons, not just Libya’s nuclear ambitions.
It’s not just the U.S. and North Korea that have hopes and expectations for the summit. The United States’ regional allies, Japan and South Korea, are probably watching the summit with their hands over their eyes, like bystanders to a duel, hoping primarily that the two big personalities do not make anything worse, but knowing that someone is likely to jump the gun and make rash statements that could damage any progress made. To that end, South Korea and Japan would consider a continued moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests a happy outcome.
China, like North Korea, is taking the long view, and would like to see a reduction in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. China would like to stop taking the blame and shouldering responsibility for North Korea’s behavior. Also, should the U.S. agree to reduce sanctions on North Korea, it would be an economic benefit for China. But China also benefits from the U.S. focus on North Korea. China’s regional power push, including its broad claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, get relatively little U.S. attention while North Korea is squaring in the crosshairs.
Two bombastic personalities who tend toward hyperbole are about to meet. Dennis Rodman, a polarizing character in his own right, who may legitimately be the only person on the planet to call both President Trump and Kim Jong Un friends, tweeted that he also plans to be in Singapore to offer support. There are real concerns that this summit will be a showdown—or a circus. But the best likely outcome for this first meeting (for all involved) is a draw—a photo op—with more meetings planned for the future.
Christina Cliff is an assistant professor of political science and security studies at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., where she teaches courses on global security & diplomacy and weapons of mass destruction.