The U.S.-DPRK Summit: Optimists, Pessimists, and Trump’s Two-Level War

Trump-Kim Summit

Daniel A. Pinkston, Ph.D.
Troy University, Seoul

The summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore will be the first meeting of a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. For that reason alone, the event carries historic symbolism, but the outcome of the meeting and the implementation of any agreement is much more important. Many people have been speculating about the summit and whether it will be the beginning of a process for peace and reconciliation. Some have gone as far to suggest that Trump could win a Nobel Peace Prize if the summit goes well. However, much uncertainty remains because the summit was scheduled on short-notice and the preparations have been less than transparent. As expected, optimists and pessimists have been prognosticating about three likely results of the summit. 

Regardless of the summit outcome, Trump’s actions at both the domestic and international levels are increasing the likelihood that any U.S.-DPRK summit agreement will fail during the implementation phase. The execution of any complex arms control agreement will require a lot of expert staff, but Trump has been replacing the professional bureaucracy with unqualified people characterized by patron-client ties and personal loyalty. Trump has disguised this as a war on the “deep state,” but in reality, he is decimating the “deep bench of experts” needed to implement coherent policies in support of the U.S. national interest. Furthermore, if diplomacy fails, the U.S. will need to cooperate with allies and partners to manage persistent North Korean threats. That cooperation is contingent upon the liberal world order, which Trump is seeking to undermine.  Before returning to Trump’s two-level war, let’s explore some of the expectations and possible outcomes of the summit. 

Summit Optimists 

The optimists roughly can be divided into two groups. I call the first group “the new North Korea camp.” This camp is the most optimistic and believes that a negotiated settlement might not have been possible before, but now it is possible or even likely because North Korea has changed. Different causes are cited: China’s sanctions enforcement, Moon’s engagement policy, Trump’s “maximum pressure and engagement,” North Korean internal dynamics and social change, Kim’s reformist mind, or some combination of factors. Although the casual mechanism is important and interesting, whichever it is, the result is the same—a change in North Korea’s policy preferences has created a convergence of interests, which in turn has created bargaining space for a possible deal. The “new North Korea” optimists tend to believe a shorter time horizon is needed to end the Korean War, denuclearize North Korea, and establish a permanent peace regime on the peninsula.

I call the second group “the Coase theorem camp.” The group argues that an efficient bargaining outcome between North Korea and the U.S. was always available, but transactions costs and imperfect information have prevented the two sides from reaching a settlement. From this perspective, the national security policy of each country creates externalities that are perceived as threats by the other. However, the Coase theorem camp expects high-level diplomacy to reduce transactions costs and to disclose information that will enable to the two sides to reach a mutually beneficial settlement. This camp directs most of its criticism towards the United States, particularly towards the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations for “failing to complete the Agreed Framework, for abandoning the Agreed Framework, and for strategic patience.” They also tend to believe that implementation will take a considerable amount of time, but that the barriers to cooperation can be managed and surmounted over the long-term. 

Summit Pessimists 

There are many pessimists of different persuasions, and they can be categorized in different ways. For example, they can be divided into short-term and long-term pessimists, or they can be classified according to the intensity of their pessimism. Some believe the diplomatic process will break down quickly, while others think the inevitable collapse will come later. Some believe that diplomatic failure will have catastrophic consequences, leading into conflict or even nuclear war. Others believe that the collapse of diplomacy will leave the peninsula with the status quo of deterrence and containment, and although suboptimal, they view mutual deterrence as robust and relatively stable. Still others believe that although short-term diplomatic failure might not lead to a crisis and conflict immediately, they argue that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will make tailoring deterrence more complicated in the shadow of the “stability-instability paradox.” Finally, the “optimistic pessimists” believe that whether the summit fails in the short-term or long-term doesn’t really matter that much because all parties are constrained from using force unilaterally to gain an advantage. 


Of course, these are rough simplifications of the possible pathways ahead. The future will be more nuanced with some unanticipated consequences—both good and bad. But the common thread through all pathways is that the policy response will require international cooperation. Under the best conditions, whereby Pyongyang fully cooperates in a fast-track arms control and disarmament process, extraordinary international coordination and cooperation would be required. Weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and arms control experts from relevant countries such as the United States, Russian, or China would be needed to draft and execute plans for verification and the accounting of materials, facilities, and human resources. Compliance will have to be coordinated with the UN Security Council and national capitals to coordinate the removal of economic sanctions. International financial institutions would have to be consulted if any positive incentives are to be provided in exchange for North Korean cooperation. The timing of the actions and deliverables will depend upon whether the process is shorter and very cooperative, or if it is longer and more contentious.     

The pessimistic pathways present daunting challenges and a broader range of necessary policy responses. In the worst-case scenario, planning for and executing the unthinkable would be extremely costly. Slipping into a crisis and stumbling into a catastrophic war would require high-tempo military operations in and around the Korean peninsula, but the U.S. military almost certainly could not achieve any meaningful political or military objectives without access to military bases, the air space, and the territorial waters of Japan and the Republic of Korea. Absent North Korean aggression, it seems inconceivable that the prime minister of Japan and the president of the Republic of Korea would grant access to bases, air space, and territorial waters for preventative strikes or preventive war against North Korea without a Chapter Seven resolution from the UN Security Council authorizing the use of force. 

If diplomacy collapses, the peninsula will return to the status quo ante, whereby deterrence and containment, economic sanctions, and diplomatic pressure will be the main instruments for dealing with Pyongyang’s intransigence. These measures also require close multinational cooperation among allies and partners to raise the costs of North Korean belligerence, to deter aggression, and to signal resolve. Coordinating policy and declaratory statements, planning and executing combined and multinational military exercises to maintain readiness will be critical to ensure that North Korea does not miscalculate. Intelligence sharing will be critical for sanctions enforcement and any necessary interdiction efforts against North Korean proliferation activities. Export control regimes will have to maintain vigilance even though Pyongyang has been successful in many of its import substitution efforts. In the case of a humanitarian disaster triggered by war, natural disaster, or food insecurity, the appropriate policy response will require coordination with international organizations (IOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Food Program (WFP).

In sum, whichever pathway unfolds after the summit, international cooperation will be critical for managing the process. Allies, partners, friendly nations, IOs, relevant national agencies, the private sector, export control regimes, research institutes, and NGOs will have different roles to play depending on the process. Weak or inadequate cooperation internationally will create opportunities for North Korea to maintain its belligerent posture, enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities, and to use its nuclear arsenal for coercive purposes. 

Trump’s Two-Level War         

North Korea presents several perplexing international security problems. There are no easy, quick solutions, and no single actor can resolve the problems unilaterally. While international cooperation will be necessary for dealing with the broad spectrum of possible outcomes after the summit, Donald Trump is creating barriers to cooperation with his two-level war: the first against American liberal-democracy and the rule of law; and the second against the liberal world order. 

At the domestic level, no person or institution, except for Vladimir Putin and Trump himself, seems safe from Trump’s hateful rants. It’s difficult to keep track of all his vile verbal assaults, but targets have included Senator John McCain, Gold Star families, opposition politicians, “son of a bitch” NFL football players exercising their First Amendment right to protest, and celebrities. His misogyny is legendary, as he has bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy because they let you do it,” and he even agreed on a radio program that his daughter is a “piece of ass.”  And who could forget Trump’s long history of racism? Or his irrational obsession with the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya? He seems to relish in aggravating the virtual carnage he spoke of in his inaugural address.  

Trump’s relentless assault against democratic norms, U.S. government institutions, and the rule of law is chilling. He has threatened to disregard electoral results, to jail political opponents, and to revoke media licenses. He has attacked the First Amendment and press freedom by calling the media “the enemy of the people.” Trump’s treacherous onslaught against U.S. governmental institutions in many ways mirrors China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that left government capacity decimated and countless lives ruined. Trump has attacked the CIA and intelligence community, the FBI, and others. His cabinet officers have undermined the functions and capacity of the State Department, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, and more. Trump has sought to transform the Department of Justice into his personal law enforcement and internal security arm to “go after Democrats” as if he were a tin-pot dictator.   

Trump also is fighting an international war against the liberal world order. The avalanche of events makes it difficult to see the big picture as we become overwhelmed with the minutiae of almost daily scandals and attacks against global norms and institutions. No institution seems spared from Trump’s incoherent rampages that are bolstered with lies and propaganda disseminated by friendly media outlets. The lies and propaganda then metastasize through social media to become “reality” for Trump and his supporters. 

The basic norms underpinning the liberal world order were created by the U.S. and its allies after World War II. The rule of law, human rights, liberal democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and open markets formed the core values that helped prevent another world war and lifted millions of people out of poverty. The liberal world order is not perfect; every human construct has flaws and can be improved. However, every American president before Trump and America’s allies have supported the values and institutions of the liberal world order. Trump has sought to undermine the pillars of this order, or he shows no interest in maintaining and supporting them. 

When not showing direct defiance, Trump has made a mockery of international institutions, essentially sending a signal that he thinks they are a joke or irrelevant. The list is long. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or “Iran nuclear deal”), UNESCO, and the Global Compact on Migration. He has threatened to pull out of NAFTA, and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). Trump has ignored the WTO and slapped unilateral tariffs against Canada, Mexico, the EU, and China, risking a global trade war. 

Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and some African countries as “shithole countries” drawing outrage from around the world. Recently, it has been revealed that the Trump administration has implemented a policy of separating children from migrant parents regardless of status, including families seeking asylum in accordance with U.S. treaty commitments under the “1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.” 

Donald Trump has made a mockery of multilateral institutions by putting his daughter in the U.S. seat in a meeting with G-20 leaders, and shoving Montenegro’s Prime Minister Dusko Markovic at a NATO summit. But his antics at the June 2018 G-7 meeting in Canada were something to behold. Before departing, Trump complained about having to attend, viewing it as a distraction from his summit with Kim Jong-un. Then Trump asked that Russia be readmitted to the forum, left early, refused to sign the joint statement, and insulted Prime Minister Trudeau, calling the prime minster “very dishonest and weak.”    

Allies in the Asia-Pacific have not been spared from Trump’s antics. He’s suggested that Japan and South Korea should acquire their own nuclear arsenal, and demanded that South Korea pay the U.S. $1 billion for the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in South Korea. Trump has called NATO “obsolete,” and he continues to insist that Mexico pay the United States to build a border wall, leading Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to cancel a planned visit to Washington after contentious phone call with Trump. While insulting friends and allies, Trump has praised autocrats and dictators such as Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Rodrigo Duterte.   

Trump’s failure to take an interest and focus on policy has left the U.S. with no coherent grand strategy. He appears to be incapable of linking security and economics; instead, he seems to see everything as a stream of one-off, zero-sum bilateral transactions. Every transaction can be described as “winning” or “getting ripped off.” Furthermore, Trump’s continuous lies are damaging America’s reputation. He could go to court when he was a New York real estate developer, but the international system has no third-party enforcer. As Trump shreds U.S. credibility, allies, friends, competitors, and enemies will question or doubt U.S. commitments. 

If Trump wins his war against the liberal world order, he will have built a massive global swamp where tyrants can thrive. If alliances crumble, and if international institutions are weakened or collapse, the United States and the rest of the world will be much less capable of dealing with North Korea, regardless of the trajectory that unfolds after the Singapore summit. And make no mistake, North Korea is very adept at exploiting division and disorder. It’s one of the primary reasons the Kim family has remained in power since the DPRK was established in 1948.   

For North Korea and the Kim family regime, the Trump-Kim summit is a tremendous windfall that will be used in a narrative surrounding the great success of the pyŏngjin line (dual development of nuclear technology and the economy) and the completion of Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent. According to North Korean ideology and policies, nuclear weapons are useful in three realms: international security; economic development; and international prestige. Absent revolution change in North Korea, including the abandonment of its current ideology and national identity, we should not expect Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons. However, I would be very happy to be wrong.