Over the past few weeks, the on again-off again U.S.–North Korean summit has drawn a considerable amount of attention to the question of whether the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will even take place. But the danger of focusing on Trump and Kim’s game of hot and cold is that it is diverting focus from the more fundamental issue at hand: what a minimally successful agreement between Washington and Pyongyang should look like.
Achieving a substantive and mutually satisfactory agreement is a particularly complex challenge, as the two sides are starting from widely disparate positions that at the most obvious level seek sharply different outcomes. As Trump has made clear, success is defined as immediate CVID (complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization), a difficult-to-grasp phrase that would elicit eye rolls from my North Korean counterparts whenever it was mentioned during our encounters. As for Kim, he is focused on the survival of his regime, beginning with the recognition of his country as a legitimate state, followed by an easing of economic sanctions. This mismatch between U.S. and North Korean goals has remained more or less consistent over the decades and has so far stymied all agreements that have emerged between the two sides since the first round of bilateral denuclearization negotiations in the early 1990s.
The stakes have grown far higher since last September, however, when the North Koreans successfully tested a thermonuclear device that yielded a blast approximately 15 times stronger than the bomb that struck Hiroshima in 1945. Two months later, Pyongyang launched its Hwasong-15 ICBM, which is capable of reaching virtually any place in the United States. At the same time, Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has begun to squeeze the North Korean economy more effectively than past sanctions and his warnings of a U.S. military response “like the world has never known” have rattled both China and South Korea to urge Kim to decelerate.
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