As the landmark meeting between American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un becomes more likely to occur in the next month or so, Katrin Katz provides a guide on how to prepare the President for this high-stakes summit in this companion piece to her recent article, written with co-author Victor D. Cha, in the May/June 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs- "The Right Way to Coerce North Korea: Ending the Threat Without Going to War".
During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump suggested he would be willing to sit down and have a hamburger with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Exchanges between the U.S. and North Korea during President Trump’s first year in office - which involved fiery threats and insults, a steady drumbeat of North Korean ballistic missile test launches, and North Korea’s sixth nuclear test - seemed to eliminate the chances for this type of meeting to occur. Yet, in March, in an abrupt about-face, Trump accepted an invitation from Kim, conveyed by the South Korean national security adviser, to meet to discuss denuclearization.
The stakes of this meeting, slated to take place in late May or June, are incredibly high. It would mark the first time a North Korean leader has met with a sitting U.S. president, and it could tip the balance between war and peace in the region. Yet we have little idea what it will entail. Historic talks on April 27 between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un that took place on the South Korean side of the border village of Panmunjom yielded mutual commitments to pursue a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War and to realize “through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” These declarations, while welcome steps toward tension reduction on the Peninsula, echoed prior inter-Korean statements and left many important questions unanswered, including: what does North Korea mean by “denuclearization,” and what is it planning to ask for in return? President Trump welcomed the news of April 27 with enthusiasm, proclaiming via tweet: “KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!” But we still do not have a sense of how Trump intends to get North Korea to commit to the declared U.S. goal of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. At a rally in Michigan following the inter-Korean meeting, Trump declared: “I just want to get the job done.” The world is left to wonder: how?
Specialists in East Asian policy and nonproliferation in the White House and across the U.S. interagency apparatus face a unique bind. They are obliged to make their best effort to prepare President Trump for this high-stakes meeting. Yet this is a President who prides himself on acting on his own instincts, not those of experts around him. Trump may ultimately decide to “wing it” in this summit, as he has with many other major policy decisions over the past year. But other Trump administration moves - such as the so-called “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign to squeeze the North Korean economy - have involved deliberation, coordination within the U.S. government and with international partners, and follow-through to achieve results. What type of guidance, if any, is likely to gain traction - to prompt the President to pursue a path involving deliberation and coordination rather than pure impulse?
Trump’s own guide to deal-making, Trump: The Art of the Deal (written with co-author Tony Schwartz and first published in 1987) might offer some insights to address this question. The book has been reported to contain ample doses of “truthful hyperbole.” But it also provides a roadmap to the President’s unconventional negotiating style and the aspects of deal-making he views as most important. (Kim already has a copy, thanks to Dennis Rodman.) Advisers to Trump should be consumed with the details of denuclearization diplomacy in the weeks before the summit. But it wouldn’t hurt for them to consider channeling Trump’s own negotiating advice in crafting their guidance.
Below are some of the “Trump Cards,” or “Elements of the Deal,” that are highlighted in the book, followed by takeaways that might help Trump advisers frame their points for the President in the lead-up to the summit.
Think Big. “I like thinking big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”
As the first U.S.-North Korea meeting at this level, this prospective summit is already inherently “big.” Yet President Trump aims to break new ground in the meeting itself. He wants nothing less than to be the U.S. leader who convinces North Korea to “get rid of their nukes.” This presents a serious problem. Trump will likely seek bold exchanges on a short timeline; North Korea reportedly prefers “phased” steps over an extended period. The reality of the denuclearization process favors the latter approach. Even if North Korea were to more clearly and express its willingness to give up its nuclear weapons (something few believe it would actually do), full nuclear disarmament would involve a complicated process that could not be achieved overnight.
Advisers to Trump might suggest that using the meeting to agree on a framework to seek on “big” visionary goals - such as North Korea’s complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization in exchange for economic assistance, a peace agreement to replace the Korean War armistice, and the normalization of relations - could still be trumpeted as a success. On their own, these types of commitments would not entail significant advances over past agreements. But they could get the ball rolling toward potentially historic achievements and would provide lower level officials with the time needed to work toward established goals (as well as alternative courses of action in case the process collapses). Endorsing a common long-term vision would also prevent the outcome that Trump should view as the worst of his set of imperfect options this stage: allowing talks to collapse abruptly in the global spotlight with no evident back-up plan.
Protect the Downside and the Upside Will Take Care of Itself. “People think I’m a gambler. I’ve never gambled in my life. To me, a gambler is someone who plays slot machines. I prefer to own slot machines. It’s a very good business being the house. It’s been said that I believe in the power of positive thinking. In fact, I believe in the power of negative thinking. I happen to be very conservative in business. I always go into the deal anticipating the worst. If you plan for the worst - if you can live with the worst - the good will always take care of itself.”
Despite President Trump’s demonstrated fondness for acting on his gut instincts, this Trump Card suggests that he is not averse to taking steps to protect against downside risk and might welcome a plan to counter each of North Korea’s potential moves. Advisers should take this as an opportunity to advocate for a more comprehensive strategy that maximizes capacities inherent in our alliances to apply pressure on North Korea, as well as China, regardless of the outcome of a summit. Such a strategy constitutes the best opportunity for the U.S. to own the game, to “be the house” rather than gambling within a space other countries control.
Maximize Your Options. “I also protect myself by being flexible. I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first. In addition, once I’ve made a deal, I always come up with a least a half dozen approaches to making it work, because anything can happen, even to the best-laid plans.”
Advisers might consider teeing up multiple possible approaches that the U.S. could live with - the more the better, since it will give Trump flexibility while minimizing the chance he will throw something half-baked on the table in exchange for a short-term concession from North Korea that is detrimental to long-term U.S. interests (such as decreasing U.S. troop levels in South Korea or Japan). Absent this type of preparation, we should be ready for a chaotic summit - lots of balls in the air, not much sense of where they’ll land.
Use Your Leverage. “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead. The best thing you can do is deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you can have…leverage often requires imagination, and salesmanship. In other words, you have to convince the other guy it’s in his interest to make the deal.”
Trump, like Kim, values unpredictability as a source of leverage. Their mutual fondness for keeping the world on its toes probably played some role in bringing us to this season of summitry. But Trump also needs to fiercely protect two other sources of U.S. leverage that could be challenged by Pyongyang’s recent efforts to charm the region: 1) the ability to inflict economic pain on North Korea via the maximum pressure sanctions campaign, which must remain in place until North Korea takes concrete, verifiable steps to denuclearize; and 2) the ability to maximize diplomatic pressure and regional deterrence (and prevent North Korean efforts at decoupling) via lockstep coordination with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea.
Get the Word Out. “You can have the most wonderful product in the world, but if people don’t know about it, it’s not going to be worth much…One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better…The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”
What’s a “bad” outcome? Bad press. What’s the “worst” outcome? No press. A spectacular summit location, one which maximizes potential for “historic” photo opportunities (though it will be hard to top Moon and Kim’s border-hopping handshakes), might provide Trump with the means to drive media coverage through dramatic optics rather than “different” behavior. Wherever the summit is held, Trump will tap his mastery of orchestrating made-for-television spectacles; we don’t need to worry about that worst outcome.
Fight Back. “Much as it pays to emphasize the positive, there are times when the only choice is confrontation. In most cases I’m very easy to get along with. I’m very good to people who are good to me. But when people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard.”
If the summit were to fail, President Trump might perceive that he has been “treated badly” by Kim and seek means to increase levels of pressure on Pyongyang beyond those that existed before the talks. Trump may think that the only way to do this is to shift to military action, initiating air strikes on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities (as the Trump administration considered for much of 2017). Yet, a limited strike would not fully eliminate the North’s nuclear program (many elements of which are hidden in places beyond the reach of U.S. bombs) and is likely to be met with North Korean retaliation that could put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. Advisers should devise ways for the President to “fight back very hard” without risking war through a preventive attack. They could stress that, if the summit fails, the best back-up plan involves a combination of diplomatic pressure, continued sanctions, and bolstered regional deterrence, not a rush to military action.
Deliver the Goods. “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
Focus on “the goods” promised to Trump’s base. Watch his recent stump speeches at rallies in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. What does he pledge to do regarding North Korea? Trump will assess negotiating strategies in light of their implications for his core of supporters. This is the audience he will have in his mind when he sits across the table from Kim Jong Un. Tough, yet vague, stances have satisfied audiences at Trump rallies in the past. Advisers might stress that Trump can be tough on North Korea, tougher than past presidents have been, without risking war through a preventive strike.
Contain the Costs. “I believe in spending what you have to. But I also believe in not spending more than you should.”
Some of Trump’s previous statements as well as recent press reporting suggest that he might consider reducing U.S. troop levels in the region in the near term as an element of a deal. If he commits to do this prior to North Korea’s denuclearization, this would be “spending more than you should” and would have detrimental implications for U.S. alliances and our ability to counter China. Advisers should make clear that any deal that puts this on the table before the facts on the ground in North Korea change is a bad deal for the United States.
The greatest deal for the world?
Might President Trump’s self-proclaimed knack for deal-making get the U.S. closer to its longtime goal of denuclearizing North Korea? Considering that he is attempting to tackle one of the most dangerous and intractable problems on the planet, we should hope that it does. But advisers also might stress the degree to which the President honed these skills in an environment that differed from Northeast Asian summitry in at least two important respects.
First, Trump’s deals in business tended to involve a handful of top players; those not in on the transaction did not have a say. When Trump sits across the table from Kim Jong Un, however, he will be playing on a board that extends far beyond North Korea. In addition to the “top guy” Kim, leaders in Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, and Tokyo will also have the capacity to shape the ultimate outcome of any U.S.-North Korea agreement.
Second, Trump’s business deals were mostly discrete transactions that played out over relatively short time horizons; the dynamics of one deal did not necessarily bleed into the next. Strategic wins in Northeast Asia require mastery of the long game, however. If Trump fails to consider the possible moves of various capitals in the region one, two, and three steps beyond the summit, he will significantly increase his chances of being played, and not just by North Korea.
The president’s advisers may not agree with all of the opinions expressed here. But, at a minimum, I hope they will encourage their boss to keep these broader dimensions of space and time in mind as he preps for what we should all hope will be, in Trump’s words, “the greatest deal for the world.”
KATRIN FRASER KATZ served on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council as Director for Japan, Korea and Oceanic Affairs from 2007 to 2008. She currently teaches as an adjunct assistant professor in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University.