Updated Apr 18, 2018

U.S. policy on North Korea entering unknown territory

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a Workers' Party of Korea meeting in Pyongyang. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The secret early April visit to Pyongyang by Mike Pompeo, the CIA Director and Secretary of State nominee, suggests that the unprecedented summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will take place after all.

Why it matters: Face-to-face negotiations are terra incognita for two countries used to threatening and pressuring each other. Even with North Korea now talking about denuclearization and Washington weighing the prospects of a deal, the outcome of the summit — and what it might mean for U.S. allies in Seoul and Tokyo — remains highly uncertain.

Despite the appeal of sanctions relief, it is hard to imagine that Kim Jong-un has experienced a great enough change of heart to hand over his nuclear weapons and materials. North Korea's nuclear program has been decades in the making, and its officials have routinely described their arsenal as a final deterrent against external aggression.

What's next: Initial talks will gauge how willing — if at all — North Korea is to declare and verifiably dismantle its programs, and how much the Trump administration is prepared to offer in return. The Trump-Kim summit could kick off complicated and lengthy negotiations, or it might be a bust, ending at an impasse too deep for even a head of state–level exchange to bridge. Then the alternatives to diplomacy — each of them unattractive in different ways — may well represent the Trump administration's renewed focus.

Richard Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security.

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