North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attending a military parade. Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS
Talks with North Korea present a long list possible pitfalls for the U.S. Since Kim Jong-un's offer, President Trump has exacerbated the risks by accepting the invitation outright, issuing overconfident statements and replacing the cautious Rex Tillerson with the pliant Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.
Why it matters: The State Department exists to ensure that the president arrives at summits like this with a strong hand, by nailing down favorable terms and negotiation strategy. Ignoring this expertise will see Trump striding blithely toward potential traps.
Pyongyang's likely gambits:
- Strengthen its rule by meeting with Trump on equal footing
- Convince Beijing that sanctions are no longer needed
- Exacerbate friction in the U.S.-South Korea alliance
- Roll back U.S. military presence in Korea
- Embarrass Trump by testing missiles before the summit
What's next: So far, the U.S. has only fallen into the first trap — but the others loom. The North Koreans can accomplish the rest by embarrassing Trump and causing him to walk away from the table first. Reneging on their commitment to South Korea to denuclearize could be enough, even if Pyongyang puts a modest but reasonable offer on the table. Or they could maneuver an impulsive president into committing to reduce U.S. forces on the peninsula.
Adam Mount is a senior fellow and director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists.