Another U.S. - North Korea Summit is a Win for North Korea

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Joseph Kim
Joseph Kim
Program Manager, Global Policy and Expert-in-Residence
George W. Bush Institute

In July, South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed another U.S.-North Korea summit before the U.S. presidential election in November. The Bush Institute’s Expert-In-Residence, Joseph Kim, explains why this would only be a win for North Korea.

Earlier this month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed  another U.S.-North Korea summit before the U.S. presidential election in November. During an interview with Greta Van Susteren on July 7, President Donald Trump said he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Three days later, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, announced that another summit is unnecessary.

“… I doubt that things like the DPRK-U.S. summit talks would happen this year.” She also wrote, “…a surprise thing may still happen, depending upon the judgement and decision between the two top leaders.” My interpretation of the latter comment is, “however, if the U.S. offers a deal that differs from the Hanoi summit, we would consider another summit.”

John Bolton, President Trump’s former national security advisor, suggests President Trump would do another summit to distract voters in November. Harry J. Kazianis, a contributor to The American Conservative, says the White House is preparing “new proposals” for Kim Jong-un.

But what does another talk mean for both countries? In my opinion, it is a losing game for President Trump, but a winning-game for Kim Jong-un. South Korea’s proposal for another is a “hot potato” for President Trump. 

The president has met with Kim three times already, in Singapore, Hanoi, and in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. These meetings were indisputably historical events, but with no tangible result. A clear victory from another summit could likely help his presidential campaign, but President Trump will not win a deal. Kim Jong-un will insist on pursuing an “action-for-action” formula. To put it simply, North Korea will not be making any progress on denuclearization unless the U.S. lifts existing economic sanctions.

However, the president can’t make that concession, because a premature lifting of sanctions would not be considered an acceptable deal and would not help his election at home. President Trump can’t reject South Korea’s new proposal for another summit either. If he declines to meet, he would have to worry about North Korea’s provocations around the elections, which will hurt his campaign. It seems that South Korea’s proposal of another summit for President Trump is a “Hobson’s Choice.” He can either take it, and fail in the negotiation, or decline it, and bear the consequences.

In contrast, another summit is a win-win deal for Kim Jong-un. The North Korean regime could have another summit with the U.S. at virtually little or no cost. The South Korean government could potentially cover the expenses to bring Kim to the negotiation table with President Trump. It would not be the first time for President Moon to cover the entire cost to convene North Korean delegates, either. The South Korean government spent $2.6 million to bring North Korea’s athletes, cheerleaders, and a group of high-ranking delegates, including Kim Yo Jong, for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018. 

Even if Kim Jong-un fails in the negotiation with President Trump, the North Korean leader has little to fear from such failure. For North Korea, failing means the regime would not get the “security guarantee” that it wants and relief from economic sanctions. But the North Korean regime has survived decades in spite of international political and economic pressures. Another failed summit with President Trump will not make the regime collapse anytime soon. Most importantly, unlike President Trump, Kim does not have to face the humiliation of returning home with a bad report card. And he does not have to worry about getting “re-elected.”

It is uncertain whether another U.S. – North Korea summit will occur or not. However, even another meeting with Kim Jong-un will not help the president for his November election. If a summit talk takes place in late October, there is a chance that President Trump might sign a declaration to officially end the Korean War. Because by October, he will have a good understanding of the election outcome. For President Moon, officially ending the Korean War would be a major coup and explain his motivation for seeking another summit.