Donald Trump will, theoretically, meet face-to-face with Kim Jong Un this spring. Sure they’ve traded rhetorical barbs. A meeting between ‘rocket man’ and the ‘deranged US dotard’ will undoubtedly be tense. But hey, what’s the worst that can happen? Well, war. That’s at least the stance taken in a video by the Wall Street Journal exploring what could go wrong. And it might not be inaccurate. As pointed out elsewhere, though North Korea has confirmed that it’s willing to talk denuclearization, the US and North Korea may disagree on what denuclearization actually entails. This could derail the potential summit. And yet, focusing solely on such an outcome ignores other potential missteps and their consequences.
So, if you’re feeling a little cynical about the whole process or just agree that the United States ought to be prepared for any outcome, here are a few more things that could go wrong:
- The meeting could take place in North Korea. North Korea has reportedly been pushing for the Trump-Kim summit to be held in Pyongyang. As has been pointed out before, this is literally the stuff of North Korean propaganda: an American president forced to travel to North Korea to negotiate regarding its nuclear program. So yeah, it’s bad optics. It’s also bad policy. Trump has visited less than 20 countries as president. Rewarding North Korea with a presidential visit would give Kim a win right off the bat. Moreover, hosting the summit in Pyongyang would open US negotiators—including the president—up to harassment that could range from inconvenient to truly threatening. US diplomats abroad, most notably in Russia, have been met with harassment intended to wear them down. The added stressors of harassment could influence the summit in unexpected ways, and is better not risked. The good news is that the White House seems to agree: a spokesperson said it was not “highly likely” that the President would travel to Pyongyang. Regardless, the president still must grapple with the optics of standing shoulder to shoulder with the leader of North Korea, a long-sought goal of the regime.
- President Trump could overestimate his leverage on North Korea. Admittedly, this is pretty closely linked to the Wall Street Journal’s example. However, it goes a step further. The issue here is that President Trump could reject an initial concession by Kim because it’s not enough of a concession. Depending on the offer, this could create the appearance that the United States is negotiating in bad faith. Being seen as acting in bad faith, in this case, could have consequences outside the US-DPRK dynamic. What will China’s reaction be, for instance, if it comes to believe that the US is playing at negotiations in order to use their breakdown as an excuse for military action? Keep in mind, Kim has already met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and will have met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in prior to meeting with President Trump. This means that those leaders have or will have a view of what Kim is willing to offer and what he wants in return. How they judge President Trump’s overtures to North Korea—and his willingness to negotiate—remains to be seen.
- Eager to reach a deal, President Trump could put UN sanctions on the table. The international sanctions regime has been orchestrated multilaterally through the United Nations. The United States cannot unilaterally roll back these sanctions. A public commitment to do so, for any reason, would present an opening for China or Russia to extract concessions from the United States in return for their cooperation. This stands true even if China or Russia were to seek the removal of sanctions themselves. After all, (it’s such a cliché, but) who doesn’t like to have their cake and eat it too? Admittedly, the chance that the President will bargain with UN sanctions is slim. His advisors have consistently suggested using more force, not less. Incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton has laid out the “legitimate” case for a first-strike on North Korea and CIA director Mike Pompeo, nominated to succeed Rex Tillerson as America’s top diplomat, has reportedly “refused to condemn” such a strike. But, if the Trump administration has taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible (and so, worthy of consideration).
These scenarios aren’t necessarily probable, and we’re better off for that. But they’re still worth considering. Yes, engaging with North Korea may lead to actual progress in freezing or dismantling that country’s nuclear program. Engagement is certainly preferable to war. But it’s important to consider how this engagement happens and to take any possibility and its consequences into consideration. Better to do so in advance and hedge against risk than to be caught at a loss.