*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
While the Blue House is probably relieved that President Donald J. Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un is back on track for June 12, the mood in official Washington is much more subdued. President Trump himself appears excited about meeting Kim, but senior officials around him have come to realize that they will have an extremely difficult time preparing their boss for this high-risk encounter with the North Korean leader.
One after another, the national security hawks around Trump have been rebuffed by the president on North Korea. National Security Advisor John Bolton was publicly embarrassed when Trump told the press in front of him that the Libya model for denuclearization was too extreme. In Mar-a-Lago in April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan tried to convince Trump to set up a coordination process with Japan and South Korea before the summit, but the president said that he preferred to go with his own gut instincts — to the dismay of the Japanese delegation.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to pin North Korea down on specific steps toward denuclearization in Pyongyang in early May — probably one major reason for Trump’s public letter cancelling the summit that next week — but then the president shifted positions and said that he would hold the meeting anyway. Since then, Trump has said that he would not use “maximum pressure” and suggested that he was aiming for a peace treaty as the main outcome of his meeting with Kim, rather than any specific steps on denuclearization. The president appears unwilling to hold Kim to any conditions other than cooperating in the production of a dramatic television event.
This truly is history in the making. The U.S. National Security Council was established by law in 1947 not only to aid the president in foreign policy, but also to control the kind of unscripted presidential summitry that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had engaged in with the Soviets in Yalta during World War II (much criticized later, because Roosevelt trusted Stalin too much and made too many concessions to the Soviets). For the first time since then, the National Security Council has lost complete control of their own president. They are dutifully preparing for the summit, knowing full well that Trump demands loyalty above all else and would humiliate them if their concerns became public. But behind the scenes the national security team is preparing to recover from a summit that very few expect will result in any meaningful steps toward denuclearization by the North, and that could do considerable damage to U.S. security interests if not managed carefully afterwards.
I expect three different efforts to preserve U.S. security interests in the aftermath of what some experts sarcastically predict could be a “catastrophic success” for Donald Trump.
First, since President Trump will leave any details of denuclearization to his negotiators, I would expect them to probe for a concrete early sign of North Korean intentions. The most logical demand would be for a North Korean declaration on all their nuclear and missile facilities, without which there can be no further progress towards verifying a denuclearization process. The North Koreans refused to do this during the Agreed Framework and the six-party talks, and will probably do so now, but that would be early evidence of whether Pyongyang is serious. Administration officials will have to be extremely careful not to be quoted in the press saying that the president was tricked by Kim, particularly before the mid-term elections in the United States in November, but they will be precise and experienced in negotiations in a way that President Trump will not be.
Second, the administration will maintain and strengthen existing sanctions as much as possible. This will be difficult because China is already loosening UN Security Council Sanctions in the context of Trump’s enthusiasm for a summit and because the president appears to have ruled-out secondary sanctions on Chinese firms that would be the next step of a “maximum pressure” campaign. Nevertheless, the September 2017 sanctions introduced by the Treasury Department give leeway for continued pressure on North Korean financial networks.
Third, Congress will assert its own role. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has told the press that he and his colleagues are already making plans to reign in the free-wheeling president on a range of issues from tariffs to foreign policy. Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska declared at CSIS in May that he and many of his colleagues would oppose withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) as part of any peace deal.
The new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) also has language that requires the administration to consult with Congress on any decisions on USFK. Just as Republican members of Congress asserted earlier this year that the president could not attack North Korea without Congressional authorization for the use of military force, Sullivan and others are now telling the administration that the Senate would have to ratify any peace treaty with the North.
Typically, it is Republican members who take a more hawkish and skeptical view of diplomacy, but many Democrats are now also criticizing the president for being overeager with the leader of the most brutal dictatorship on earth. At first, Democrats were hesitant to criticize the administration for supporting diplomacy, but former Democratic foreign policy officials are warning that the president is violating many of the basic principles of effective diplomacy. If Democrats take over the House or Senate in November, they will likely highlight this point.
Of course, this effort to recover from the June 12 summit will not be necessary if Kim offers some concrete concessions on denuclearization. However, I have yet to meet a U.S. official who expects that outcome.