President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un later today in Singapore for bilateral talks on the latter’s nuclear weapons programs. There is a great deal of risk involved with this summit. But if the talks with Kim do not produce North Korean disarmament, does it necessarily mean disaster?
The fundamental issue in the study of international relations is how difficult it is for states to credibly commit to an agreement. In the absence of an international sovereign to enforce agreements, a certain amount of trust is required. That need for trust is why remarks by National Security Advisor John Bolton, and others, referring to a “Libya Model” for North Korean nuclear disarmament are so unhelpful. While President Trump has walked back rhetoric about a Libya model with regards to North Korea, there are other problems with his ability to credibly commit to an agreement. Two stand out in particular. For one, Trump has already suggested by walking away from the Iran nuclear deal that agreements by one administration—unless ratified as treaties by the Senate—are only good for the tenure of the administration that made them. Two, the President is mercurial to the point that it is unclear whether he will stand by any deal he might make himself.
And these problems are only on the American side of the table. North Korea does not exactly have a stellar history of honoring its commitments either.
Does this inability to credibly commit mean the Trump-Kim summit will end in disaster? Not necessarily. In a post today at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Elizabeth Saunders of George Washington University argues that major changes—either good or bad—are unlikely to result from the summit. According to Saunders, there are structural issues that will make it difficult to change the status quo for good or ill. If change does occur it is not likely to be evident until well after the summit.
There are very big risks that could materialize from the summit given the individuals involved. So there are good reasons to be concerned about the outcome. However, Saunders is most likely correct that the likelihood of such a result—while not zero—is low. Instead, both the United States and North Korea will continue to muddle through in their frequently confrontational relationship—with the odds favoring neither lasting détente nor disastrous war. Given the price of a devastating war on the Korean Peninsula, that might be the best anyone could hope for.