By Bonnie Kristian
After a skirmish of words and a surprise cancelation, the June 12 summit between President Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un is back on—but only if someone can pick up Kim’s hotel bill. Though he lives in luxury inside his hermit kingdom, a combination of self-imposed isolation, profligate military spending, and decades of international sanctions has left Kim too cash-poor to cover his retinue’s housing at their luxury hotel of choice. As Pyongyang is unlikely to accept American generosity, the summit’s host country, Singapore, is expected to foot the bill.
This odd, even amusing, story offers a timely lesson for the U.S. delegation and American observers as final preparations for the summit are made: It shows in vivid, embarrassing detail that the North Korean emperor really has no clothes.
For all his boasts and braggadocio, for all the delusional inhumanity with which he runs his tin-pot regime—and for all the handwringing from many in Washington—Kim is extremely poor and weak. He is the supreme leader of his country and yet cannot pay for his own room. Set against the sheer wealth and might of the United States, Kim looks very small indeed.
Of course, this is not to say Kim is not dangerous, particularly if he comes to believe he cannot retain power and has thus nothing left to lose. The risk the U.S. faces is not that Kim would start a war—he wouldn’t, because knows he can’t win—but that reckless voices in Washington would grow dissatisfied with indefinite deterrence and orchestrate a U.S. attack. Faced with the prospect of preventive American invasion, Kim could take millions of U.S. and South Korean soldiers and civilians down with him, using nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons without the restraint his present goal of self-preservation necessitates. This is not a threat to be underestimated, but overestimation—which, given our hype-driven media and self-serving politicians prone to threat inflation, is always the greater temptation—would be an equally grave strategic mistake.
The need of discrete arrangements for the pauper-king is not the only strange part of this exercise in diplomacy as compared to talks with more normal nations. Indeed, American diplomats who have dealt with North Korea in the past have warned the Trump administration to expect complete rigidity from every envoy but Kim himself.
“Their negotiators have no leeway. They come in with talking points and they are completely inflexible,” Michael Green, who negotiated with North Korea in the George W. Bush years, explained to Politico. “They stick with the talking points, and if you surprise them with a much more flexible position, they stick to the pre-programmed talking points, accusing you of being hard-liner and having a hostile policy.”
While the North Korean officials may revise their position after private conference, in the heat of the moment U.S. diplomats can anticipate indoctrination, intransigence, and outright lies—in short, they can anticipate frustration, so setting expectations appropriately is vital.
While the president has lately spoken of the summit in glowing terms, declaring it will be “very successful” because Washington and Pyongyang are “getting along” so well, a more realistic assessment would be more measured.
Success for this summit does not look like denuclearization accomplished. In the best-case scenario, it looks like the rough outlines of a deal for denuclearization, which will take years to finalize and execute, with many setbacks and miscommunications along the way. More likely, success for this month’s summit will not look like denuclearization at all.
Yes, Kim has indicated via South Korea his willingness to denuclearize under certain conditions—most notably, security against regime change in the form of a promise that the United States will not invade—but his survivalist incentive to retain his arsenal will not be easily overcome. (It will not be overcome at all if Trump administration hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence continue citing Libya, where Kim’s analogue was deposed and brutally killed, as their model for North Korea’s future.)
Despite his recent pledges, Kim may never fully denuclearize, and Trump’s team would do well to accept that for now. To refuse to countenance that possibility sets up a false binary of denuclearization or war which will make fruitful conversation at this summit impossible.
It is equally important for U.S. negotiators to remember responsibility for managing the problem the Kim regime poses does not rest with them alone. After multiple cordial meetings between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the two Koreas have already scheduled three more sets of talks for this month alone. China and other regional powers will play a role too, as may the neon lure of American fast food: North Korea has signaled an openness to welcoming McDonald’s to Pyongyang, and once the Big Mac arrives, the sort of closed communism the Kim regime practices historically doesn’t last long.
All of this is to say the Trump-Kim summit is a critical opportunity to reduce U.S.-North Korea tensions, but it also could go very wrong. The American delegation must be careful to arrive with tempered expectations, neither succumbing to threat inflation nor expecting they can or should try to bridge the gap between the U.S. and DPRK in one diplomatic session. Following months of mutual saber-rattling and weeks of will-they-or-won’t-they drama, this summit may feel like it should be a dramatic climax of world affairs. In reality, it ought to be a cautious, even boring dialogue setting the foundation for a prudent and productive relationship that prioritizes averting the looming specter of catastrophic war—and maybe one day achieves denuclearization.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on June 11, 2018. Read more HERE.