What should we expect from the summit?
Here at TMC, we aren’t in the business of making predictions. But there is a common thread running through much of our recent coverage — of North Korea, and geopolitics generally. Political scientists are trained to look for hidden, structural forces at work — forces that make it hard to change the status quo. As a result, international-relations scholars tend to look at world politics and ask: “What would it take to change the status quo? What forces stand in the way of change?”
If we were to sum up the lessons of TMC’s North Korea pieces, it might be this: Whatever happens, it will take time to really understand the outcome. The results are not likely to tilt the world dramatically either toward war or peace. Here are a few reasons.
1. Kim is not likely to give up his nuclear weapons (not at the summit, if ever).
Several of our recent posts poke holes in the idea that a single summit can change everything. It isn’t that face-to-face diplomacy can’t achieve results — today’s post from Marcus Holmes and Keren Yarhi-Milo shows that it certainly can. But they also note that successful summits require preparation, something Trump has said he doesn’t feel is necessary.
Many political scientists point to the long-term or structural factors — things that are hard for any one leader to change — that helped bring Trump and Kim to this point. That includes North Korea’s nuclear forces. As Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer explained, North Korea surprised those who thought a poor country couldn’t build a serious nuclear capability. But North Korea succeeded mainly because Kim made it such a high priority.
2. Even if there is a deal, promises will be hard to keep.
One looming question is what happens after Singapore. The United States and North Korea have made agreements before. The record is dismal; this comprehensive rundown from Joshua Pollack makes for grim reading.
But surely, some might say, Trump’s toughness makes this time different? After all, this is a president who promised to rain “fire and fury” on Kim last summer; see Mira Rapp-Hooper on Trump’s threats if you feel the need for a refresher.
Several of our recent posts suggest that Trump’s tough talk isn’t likely to change much. James Lebovic explained why Trump’s toughness on the Iran nuclear deal (and by extension, his bluster toward Trudeau) wouldn’t necessarily affect North Korea. That’s because Trump is sending so many different signals, and because North Korea will view them through its own lens.
Similarly, both Andrew Kydd and James Fearon pointed to how little trust there is in the U.S.-North Korea relationship — and in particular, the fact that North Korea can’t trust the United States to leave it alone. As Kydd wrote, “The United States, for humanitarian and strategic reasons, would prefer to see the North Korean regime collapse, and have South Korea take over a unified Korean peninsula.” Trump can’t make Kim’s concern about this disappear. Even if he could, Kydd points out that it’s unlikely Trump could bind his successors to any promises he made, as Kim could see clearly when Trump himself undid President Barack Obama’s deal with Iran.
The bottom line: In international diplomacy, real game-changers that last are very, very rare.
3. Even if there isn’t a major deal, it’s still worth talking to North Korea.
Several posts here at the Monkey Cage have noted that even smaller steps might help improve relations in the future. Mark Bell pointed to three reasons the United States should talk to North Korea even if Kim won’t give up his nuclear weapons: It could help restrict the growth of the North Korean program, deter the export of nuclear technologies and avoid accidents and miscalculations. After April’s North-South Korea summit — the first in over a decade — Bridget Coggins acknowledged obstacles to peace but noted that the talks could start moving things in a less hostile direction.
4. If the summit fails, nuclear war is still relatively unlikely.
What if the summit is a spectacular failure, like the G-7 breakdown but more so? Should we worry about war?
Here, the political-science focus on structural factors provides some optimism. In January, Michael Horowitz and I — two scholars who have written books on how leaders matter — wrote about why nuclear war was not very likely, given the geographical and other constraints that would make a war on the Korean Peninsula horrific. Dan Reiter further explained that historically, very few wars have started in situations like this one.
The news isn’t all good: Tanisha Fazal explained that if war does come, casualties would probably be higher than in other recent U.S. conflicts. But that may only make the two sides even more wary of fighting.
All of this suggests the summit isn’t likely to produce a radical change in U.S.-North Korea relations toward either peace or war. If there is an agreement, it may be something incremental, and the historical track record and lack of trust should produce healthy skepticism of whether it will stick.
But even if it doesn’t, there’s no need to stock up on canned goods. We may be moving through what Ankit Panda has called the “stages of grief” with the North Korean nuclear program. The final stage — acceptance of a stable deterrence relationship with North Korea — might be just fine.