kkmkmPhoto: iStock
kkmkmPhoto: iStock

The on-again off-again nature of the summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has unleashed numerous commentaries emphasizing the lack of preparation and need for more groundwork before any summit should be held.

The core argument is simple – that the issue of US-Korea relations is so complex that it cannot be solved by the two leaders sitting down, and a lack of preparation could see any future path bog down or break down, leading to just one more failed attempt to resolve decades of hostility. A hasty, failed summit places us back on the path of a nuclear-armed North Korea, or worse removes any appetite for dialogue in the United States and makes war the only option for achieving denuclearization.

In one sense, the pundits are absolutely correct. There is a long history of mistrust, reneging on deals and collapsed agreements. There is little reason to believe North Korea is truly willing to give up its nuclear weapons after having spent so much money and political capital on their development. There is no realistic way to ensure CVID – complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization – as it is near impossible to verify a negative, and nothing is truly irreversible. North Korea cannot count on any US security guarantee. In short, with the wide gap between Washington and Pyongyang even on the very definition of denuclearization, there would seem to be no real room for compromise.

With the wide gap between Washington and Pyongyang even on the very definition of denuclearization, there would seem to be no real room for compromise

But the focus on the technical points, however well meaning and informed, misses a key point. Without a broader political framework in place, there is no way to ever resolve the technical details and differences. The summit itself is not the resolution, it is to set the agenda. It creates the top-down political support and direction in both capitals to seek compromise. This is the lesson of arm-control dialogue throughout the Cold War.

When dialogue was primarily from a technical standpoint, from discussions of throw weight, range, accuracy, warhead numbers versus missile numbers, there was little room for progress. Each side could neither trust the other nor accept sacrifices to their own national security strategy. It took summits between leaders that provided the framework for the technical talks that allowed some of these details to be overcome. Neither side ever got all it wanted, and both sides skirted the agreements, but in the end the political will created a climate for the technicians of the deals to seek some compromises, to offer some concessions.

The United States and North Korea cannot both get everything they want from talks. Their maximalist positions are simply too far apart. Delaying the summit is unlikely to bring them closer to a resolution that is mutually satisfactory. Without clear political will from the top, the details may prove insurmountable. Even with a summit and complete political agreement to pursue peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, there is little guarantee of success. But the reality of international relations is that there is rarely a complete resolution of anything. Rather, there is management of issues.

Eight months ago, the odds were on military conflict in Korea; today the mood is far different. Even if the “success” of the summit is only the establishment of more permanent liaison channels between Washington and Pyongyang, instead of the ad hoc channels currently relied upon, this is an improvement. It allows crises to be more readily defused, for misunderstandings and accidents to be more quickly recognized for what they are.

This is an interesting moment, one where personalities do matter. Kim  has completed his nuclear program, at least to a level of a credible threat, and is now willing to shift attention to strengthening the economy. That requires eased relations with the United States, even if it doesn’t require US investments. Kim, who studied abroad, has a much clearer understanding of his country’s true situation and position, and the challenges he faces if he allows the country to remain in isolation.

In South Korea, Moon Jae-in has staked his presidency on easing inter-Korean tensions, and sees US-Noth Korea relations as a key component of that. His willingness to meet with the North Korean leader, even at short notice, reflects a changed political dynamic both in Seoul and Pyongyang. And in the United States, Trump continues to act in an untraditional manner, operating outside the traditional political constraints of a US president. It may cause confusion and raise concerns of long-term success, but few others would have been willing simply to accept a meeting with Kim or to go so far as to show he was willing to walk away – something that forced the North to shift away from its traditionally unreliable negotiating posture.

The confluence of these three individuals provides a space for a political agreement, for a broad-based framework that certainly does not resolve all of the incredibly complex details of the Korean situation, but does demonstrate the political will and direction that engenders more room for progress on those details. Waiting to sort those out first is a surefire way of never resolving anything. In the end, a summit doesn’t guarantee success, but trying to wait until all the details are sorted out before holding the summit is a guarantee of failure.

Rodger Baker is Senior Vice President of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor.com, a geopolitical intelligence and forecasting firm based in Austin, Texas.

Rodger Baker

Rodger Baker is vice-president of strategic analysis at Stratfor.com, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm headquartered in Austin, Texas. Baker leads Stratfor's analysis of East Asia and the Pacific and guides the company's global forecasting process. Since 1997, he has played a pivotal role in developing and refining Stratfor's analysis and geopolitical framework.