All signs may point to a successful and historic summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, but the stakes are so high that the U.S. national security community is braced for the possibility of a rapid spiral toward nuclear brinkmanship if the talks between the two men turn sour.
With the North Korean side notorious for bizarre antics and sudden walkouts from diplomatic meetings, it remains anyone’s guess how Tuesday’s face-to-face will ultimately play out — even as most analysts agree that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim are both driven by domestic political motives to make it appear as a major success.
“It’s very hard for me to imagine this summit not succeeding,” said Robert L. Gallucci, a former chief U.S. negotiator with the North Koreans, although he acknowledged that a sudden meltdown in Singapore could trigger a quick reversal to the threat-soaked posturing between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim just a year ago.
“The president of the United States might hop on his airplane and come home pretty unhappy,” Mr. Gallucci, now a professor at Georgetown University, said Friday at a discussion hosted by the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “We would be in a situation in which we were once again talking preventive strikes and the South Koreans would be caught in the middle.”
Others have put it more bluntly. Victor Cha, also a former U.S. negotiator and now adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has said “the danger of a failed summit is that it could actually take us a step closer to armed conflict, because there is no diplomacy left after a [failed] summit.”
Mr. Cha made the comment in April to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, arguing that “a preventative unilateral attack by the United States on North Korea” would need congressional approval and take into “sober account” the possibility of counterstrikes targeting the 350,000 U.S. military personnel and other Americans living in Japan and South Korea.
While Mr. Trump has upped hopes for success — tweeting just before arrival in Singapore of “a feeling that this one-time opportunity will not be wasted!” — his optimism comes against a backdrop in which the summit nearly fell apart just a few weeks ago.
Mr. Trump canceled the summit in late May after North Korea suddenly hurled invective at Washington — and specifically National Security Adviser John R. Bolton — for suggesting that Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization must happen quickly along a “Libya model.”
With South Korea scrambling to mediate, the two sides worked through the hiccup and got the summit back on track. But the danger of a potential collapse felt all the more real when a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters in late May that the U.S. military was “ready to fight tonight” should North Korea launch strikes against American interests or allies.
The comment was reminiscent of the height of brinkmanship in August, when fears of an armed clash soared amid Mr. Trump’s warning that North Korea could face “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” He made the threat after reports that Pyongyang had succeeded in building a nuclear bomb small enough to fit inside an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The nuclear-tipped ICBM fear rose after an increase in missile and nuclear tests that Pyongyang conducted in 2016 and 2017, actions that were accompanied by state media threats toward Washington.
Mr. Bolton, who has since become the president’s national security adviser, made headlines as a private analyst at the time by advocating for pre-emptive strikes that could target North Korean missile facilities.
While most analysts say the Singapore summit is likely go smoothly, many are skeptical that measurable progress will be made on the issue of denuclearization.
The Trump administration has said that in order for North Korea to get sanctions relief, Mr. Kim will have to abandon his nuclear program through “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement,” or CVID.
Pyongyang so far has said only that it is willing to pursue a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and there are signs that the North’s definition of denuclearization differs from what Washington demands.
In Mr. Kim’s view, the notion is tied to a drawdown in nuclear capabilities across the region, including in China and Russia, said Tara O, an Asia specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s not the same as the denuclearization of North Korea,” Ms. O said during the Center for a New American Security discussion on Friday.
Patrick Cronin, who heads the center’s Asia-Pacific security program, added that “President Trump [will be] trying to really look into the eyes of Kim Jong-un and say, ‘Are you serious about [nuclear] dismantlement? Because if you are, I’m serious about letting you build your economy.’ “
If that basic level of agreement is achieved, said Mr. Cronin, there will still be major uncertainties. “Presumably,” he said, “Trump and Kim are looking to see whether there is the will on both sides to begin a process that could lead to a road map that could start to be very specific in the months ahead.”
Mr. Gallucci, meanwhile, also raised questions about denuclearization, arguing that the whole concept of CVID, while “politically correct,” is “physically nonsense.”
The amount of fissile nuclear material needed for a bomb may be about the “size of a baseball,” he said. “So if you think they can’t find a place to hide five baseballs in North Korea, there’s something wrong here.”
Mr. Gallucci added that better words for Mr. Trump to push are “transparency, monitoring [and] verification.”
But one former CIA official focused on North Korea said it’s hard to fathom that the North Korean leader is serious about abandoning a nuclear program that his father and grandfather worked for decades to build.
“Nuclear weapons are a part of North Korea’s national identity,” said Jung H. Pak, who held senior U.S. intelligence positions prior to becoming a private analyst with the Brookings Institution. “It is the guarantor of North Korea’s status, and it’s the guarantor of Kim.
“Unless we see a difference in the way, or any attempt at shaking down that ideological infrastructure of North Korea’s nuclear identity,” Ms. Pak said at the Center for a New American Security discussion. “I don’t see denuclearization as something that is a realistic goal.”
• Guy Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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