Rarely in modern in history has there been a summit with higher stakes and greater uncertainty over its outcome than the planned meeting in Singapore a week from now between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.
On one side of the table will be the leader of a highly reclusive, isolated state that has devoted the past three decades to the development of nuclear warheads and missiles.
Kim Jong-un claims to be on the point of a historic pivot toward economic development – but the regime has made similar claims before and stopped well short of surrendering weapons it believes to be a guarantee of survival.
Across the table will be a US president unlike any other in history: capricious, disdainful of advice from even his own officials and entirely convinced that his instincts – his feel for the “art of the deal” – are always the best guide to action.
That unpredictability has driven several whiplash turns in the past few days alone.
Trump threatened the regime with Libyan-style “decimation” if Kim did not do a deal, called the summit off, then declared it back on and welcomed Kim’s right-hand man to the White House with more personal warmth than he has hitherto shown to any US ally.
In these circumstances, there is no absolute guarantee that both men will be at Singapore Capella hotel at the appointed hour of 9am next Tuesday, for what would be the first ever encounter between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.
UPDATE: The venue for the Singapore summit between @POTUS and Leader Kim Jong Un will be the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island. We thank our great Singaporean hosts for their hospitality.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) June 5, 2018
But advance teams are in Singapore urgently working to prepare the meeting at short notice. And the opening moves have already been made, well ahead of the formal negotiations.
North Korea has stopped its nuclear and long-range missile tests, and made some moves towards dismantling a nuclear testing site – though the significance of what was blown up is in doubt.
For his part, Trump has given the regime more respect and recognition than it has ever received from the US in its 70-year history, with his effusive welcome of top aide Kim Yong-chol on Friday and his abrupt abandonment of previous US negotiating positions the same day.
He accepted the North Korean insistence that any future denuclearisation would not be an “all-in-one” event as US officials had insisted, but a drawn-out phased process, involving multiple summits along the way. And the president unceremoniously dropped his mantra of “maximum pressure” that had hitherto defined his North Korea policy.
US sanctions are rooted in congressional legislation and by law can only be lifted once North Korean behaviour changes demonstrably. UN sanctions are similarly grounded in security council resolutions but their enforcement varies considerably. There are already signs that China is relaxing restrictions on North Korean trade.
The road to an agreement immediately gets much steeper on 12 June if and when the two leaders sit down. Trump has sought to play down those expectations, characterising the meeting as “getting-to-know-you, plus”.
But without a substantial “plus” in the form of progress in the direction of disarmament, the meeting will widely be deemed a failure. And to achieve that progress, Trump will have to make significant gestures towards what Kim wants most – security guarantees.
Both leaders will go into the Singapore meeting with cards in their hands, representing quick, deliverable concessions. The big question next week will be which cards they play and in what sequence. At a minimum, Kim will be expected to formalise the current suspension of nuclear and missile testing. He could go further by declaring a cap on his existing arsenal freeze on other nuclear activity like uranium enrichment.
His biggest element of his opening offer, however, would be a statement on his plans to dismantle his nuclear weapons programme, and here everything will be in the details – how clearly denuclearisation is defined, and whether Kim commits to a timetable.
“I do believe that North Korea is most probably willing to say that at the end of the day they are willing to denuclearise, but there will be fine print, and that fine print has to be negotiated,” said Joseph Yun, a former US special envoy for North Korea policy now an adviser at the US Institute of Peace.
For Robert Gallucci, who led negotiations with the North Koreans in the Clinton administration, a detailed declaration on denuclearisation will be the key to Trump’s success or failure in Singapore.
“If he doesn’t get anything else, that would be a win,” Gallucci said at a discussion at the Stimson Centre thinktank in Washington. “And if he gets everything else but doesn’t get that, that’ll be a loss.”
Another element that would be expected to be in Kim’s opening offer is an agreement to allow international inspectors to visit the regime’s declared nuclear sites, principally the nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
“When I think of what would be a big success coming out of the summit, I think getting the inspectors back in has to be one of our top goals,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a director at the New America foundation who has led backchannel negotiations with the North Koreans.
Such concessions would be on a par with what North Korea has offered in previous agreements. To break new ground, Kim would have to go further. At this summit or in subsequent meetings, the US is likely to ask for a full inventory of its nuclear programme, declared and undeclared – an issue on which previous deals broke down.
To be meaningful, that would be have to be verified by access for inspectors, whether they come from the International Atomic Energy Agency or a specially assembled ad hoc inspection organisation.
Trump has various ways in which he can reciprocate. One is “negative security assurances”, a pledge not to attack, something the president has already gone a long way towards in his tweets and casual remarks. He has also hinted he might be ready to start negotiations aimed at a formal peace treaty to end the conflict that currently is subject only to the 1953 armistice.
At the same time, the US could establish a liaison office in Pyongyang and allow a North Koreans to set their own up in Washington, a step towards mutual recognition.
Another way the US could demonstrate flexibility and sensitivity is to tone down its joint military exercises with South Korea, curbing the use of what Pyongyang views as “nuclear and strategic assets”, like F-22 stealth fighters and B1-B bombers.
The fear in Seoul and Tokyo is that Trump will be persuaded to give too much away under this category, offering to withdraw troops or otherwise weaken US alliances in the region, to which the president has not shown much commitment anyway. Anxiety in the region has swung from concerns Trump will not engage to anxiety he will be too eager to please.
The full dismantling of the North Korean arsenal (estimated at between two and three dozen warheads), the destruction of missiles and the removal of fissile material and production capacity is likely to take a decade at least, according to Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford-based physicist with firsthand experience of the North Korean nuclear programme.
At the same time, Pyongyang would be expected to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), to set its non-nuclear status in stone.
On the other side of the ledger, sanctions would have to lifted in tranches, and North Korea’s place in the international institutions would be secured, as part of a general normalisation of diplomatic relations.
Such aspirations are likely to lie beyond the horizon as seen from Singapore. What will matter next week is whether the summit negotiations end up headed in that general direction, and whether Kim shows some proof that this time the regime is serious about foregoing its nuclear arsenal.
“Kim Jong-un is 34 years old. I think he’s looking to live another 40 years or more, and he has experience living overseas,” Ambassador Yun told a Senate committee on Tuesday. “All through their history they have not shown any signs that they want to denuclearise, but … it is a hypothesis worth testing … War is not an option.”