3 Questions: Vipin Narang on the North Korea summits

An historic April 27 summit between Moon Jae-in, president of South Korea, and Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea, has been lauded as a path to peace for the divided peninsula as well as a tipping point of the North Korean nuclear crisis. But what concrete actions should we expect from the meeting between Kim and Moon? And how will this affect the forthcoming summit between President Trump and Kim? MIT nuclear strategy expert Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science and a member its Security Studies Program, weighs-in with his observations, underscoring that rhetoric is key.

Q: How does the recent Kim-Moon summit pave the way for the upcoming meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un?

A: The Kim-Moon summit achieved its main objective: to set up the main event between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. As expected, it was long on optics and bonhomie, but short on specific details. The joint statement pledged aims and goals that mirrored previous North-South summits. The language on “denuclearization” was vague enough that President Moon could tell the U.S. administration that the North reaffirmed the goal of “complete denuclearization,” while leaving enough ambiguity so that the North could claim that it reaffirmed goals such as the full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (which would have implications for the American extended nuclear deterrence commitment to South Korea) or as lofty as global nuclear disarmament. 

Q: What should we expect from U.S.-North Korea summit?

A: The devil will be in the details in the upcoming Trump-Kim summit and whether they can agree upon a common definition of “denuclearization” and steps that concretely achieve whatever that may be. Unfortunately, with the Trump Administration’s continued insistence on unilateral complete, verifiable, irreversible North Korean disarmament — and nothing short of that — something North Korea is exceedingly unlikely to agree to, the prospect of meaningful progress short of that (such as freezes on certain missiles and nuclear weapons) may be dwindling. 

Q: What advice do you have for President Trump?

A: The most important thing is to keep expectations realistic. If President Trump believes that he is going to go to the summit to be handed the keys to Kim’s nuclear kingdom, he may be in for a rude awakening. There is no reason that the summit cannot achieve progress toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula, but it will have to be steps and over a long period of time. Implementation and verification will be difficult, but not impossible. There is a deal to be had that benefits both sides, and the world. But it is unlikely to involve the unilateral surrendering of nuclear weapons by North Korea. So if the Trump administration is open to a deal short of that — which will still require some concessions from the United States — but which is a win-win, then the summit may yield fruit. But if not, a spectacular failure can be equally dangerous and pave the way to conflict. In my view, both the extreme success — unilateral North Korean disarmament — and the extreme failure — the meeting blowing up — are unlikely.

The most likely outcome is probably a nice photo-op and declaration which is long on rhetoric, pledging to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula by some timeframe, but which commits neither side to anything immediately. This allows both sides to claim victory — Kim having met the president of the United States as an equal and as a nuclear weapons power, and Trump extracting some vague commitment on denuclearization — and kick the can down the road.