BEIJING — It’s been said that only Nixon could have gone to China. This week a professor at a top Chinese university told me, with just a hint of slyness, “Maybe only Donald Trump could make peace with North Korea.”
The professor, who asked that I not use his name, argued that Trump’s brashness, inexperience and need for a victory on the world stage (as a distraction from his legal troubles at home) may have uniquely positioned him to set aside concerns about North Korea that inhibited his predecessors.
In fact, there is widespread optimism among Chinese diplomats, scholars and foreign-policy types that a Trump-Kim Jong Un summit will happen and that a deal will be struck, one that will at least reduce the risk of imminent conflict on the Korean peninsula. They believe it not just because Trump needs and wants it, but because Kim Jong Un, having proved his strength through his successful nuclear program, wishes to translate those gains into economic relief for his people and security assurances for himself.
That said, among national security professionals here and in the U.S., hopes for short-term gains on the Korean peninsula are tempered by deep concerns about the divergent long-term interests of the U.S., the South Koreans, the North Koreans and the Chinese. Those differences are only compounded by distinctions of style: Trump and his team have proven themselves to be erratic, impulsive and transactional, whereas the North Koreans and the Chinese are strategic, experienced and calculating. The South Koreans are trying to broker the differences between their neighbor to the north and their principle ally, the U.S.
It is essential to factor short-term desire and long-term differences into any predictions about what can come out of a summit and what will happen in the years that follow it.
We begin with what we know of Trump. He seems to care less about geopolitical realities and details than about achieving something he can sell as a big win for the deal-maker in chief, as his now infamous “break-up” letter made clear. The trappings of statesmanship will do, along with a marketable foreign policy “triumph” to help his side in the upcoming election.
Trump will want to be able to use the American right’s language of victory — terms such as “complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization” — whether they are fully embraced by both sides or not. He will not concern himself with the fine print.
Kim also wants to raise his international stature. He wants quick sanctions relief, foreign aid, and a reduction of America’s threat posture. Perhaps most of all, he wants to remain in power.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to eliminate the threat of devastating war that has seemed so palpable since Trump took office, and take advantage of the economic and political benefits that would accompany peace.
China wants to push U.S. power away from its borders without encouraging, or midwifing, a “unified” Korea allied with the West.
There is enough overlap in those goals to achieve some sort of deal. But here is what it won’t accomplish, the goal that we hear the most about: The elimination of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
As a recently revealed CIA assessment indicates, complete denuclearization is a non-starter for Pyongyang. It may be a stated goal in the agreement, but it won’t come to pass. North Korea can always hide a few warheads, and its scientists will always have the capability to build more. In any case, Kim will hold something back because he saw the unhappy fate that befell Libya’s Moammar Kadafi when he gave up his nuclear stockpile.
Still, all the players can come away with something that they want from this summit.
South Korea will probably get a formal end to the war of the 1950s. Trump will get at least the language of “denuclearization,” details to be determined later (read: never).
For Trump’s “big win,” Kim will have to give up something quickly — perhaps some nuclear warheads and long-range missiles that pose a threat to the U.S. In exchange, Kim will require and likely get a U.S. reduction of forces in or near South Korea, along with economic relief and security assurances. China will sign off on the peace agreement and it may publicly or privately provide security assurances to Kim.
All the parties will call whatever emerges historic, but what is left out of the deal will also set the terms for the tensions of tomorrow, and they may well look a lot like the tensions of just a few months ago.
In the end, the professor will probably be proved right: Only a President Trump could strike a deal with North Korea. But in years to come, his observation may very well get modified: Only a President Trump would rush into an agreement so unlikely to achieve its supposed goal.
David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of many books on international affairs. He is in China to work on his next book.