President Donald Trump’s top priority when he meets Kim Jong Un in Singapore will be wresting an ironclad commitment that the North Korean leader is prepared to give up his nuclear weapons programme in exchange for an agreement bringing seven decades of hostilities to a close.
But he acknowledged on Thursday that would only be the beginning.
"Sounds a little bit strange, but that's probably the easy part," Trump said at the White House alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “The hard part remains after that.”
Even with such an assurance, the summit will be just the start of an intricate process. U.S. officials need to obtain a list of all of North Korea’s nuclear assets, nail down verification arrangements in a country that has resisted intrusive monitoring and settle on a speedy schedule for dismantling Pyongyang’s arsenal.
All this must take place as Washington and Pyongyang try to build trust after more than 60 years of often acrimonious confrontation.
Former negotiators say the lower-level talks and future summits that are expected to follow will be full of potential pitfalls. But U.S. officials also have the lessons of several rounds of failed talks to draw on. Among their recommendations: address verification early, be explicit, be firm, get it in writing and keep the momentum.
“A key lesson is the need to be specific and explicit about the constraints we want the North Koreans to be bound by,” said Robert Einhorn, a former U.S. negotiator on North Korea’s missile programs. “The North Koreans will exploit any ambiguities.”
North Korea has committed itself to denuclearisation before: In a September 2005 statement it issued jointly with the U.S. and four other nations, North Korea said it was committed to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” Those “six–party talks” faltered after Pyongyang resisted the Americans’ demand for wide-ranging verification.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal have expanded exponentially since then, making the goal of denuclearising the peninsula all the more challenging, especially since the White House goal is to achieve that rapidly.
The Trump administration is calculating, however, that this time the stars may finally be aligned. For one thing, Trump is meeting with the one man in North Korea who can make major decisions, Kim, against the backdrop of punishing U.N. Security Council sanctions.
The White House also has stepped back from its early brinksmanship and no longer is suggesting core issues should be resolved at single high-stakes summit. Rather, Trump has cast the Singapore meeting as the start of a longer process.
“At minimum, we’ll start with perhaps a good relationship—that’s something very important for the ultimate making of a deal,” Trump said. “It’s going to be much more than a photo op—it’s a process. It’s not a one-meeting deal. It’d be wonderful if it were,” he added.
Still, the summit is advancing without the months of detailed negotiation and scripting that have long preceded most arms control summits, injecting a note of unpredictability and putting a premium on the need to clarify Pyongyang’s commitments.
One likely outcome of the summit is a communique that would outline the principles that should guide U.S.-North Korea relations and establish the parameters for lower-level talks that would follow.
But some longtime Korea veterans said another important task will be to formalize the unilateral gestures North Korea has already made to refrain from nuclear and missile tests and to close its nuclear test site.
“The key lesson we learned was really to specify everything on paper,” said Joseph Yun, the former top U.S. diplomat for North Korea who retired from the State Department early this year.
Another lesson, former officials say, is to deal with the thorny question of verification early in the process, instead of treating it as a technical matter to be addressed once key understandings are achieved after months of discussion.
“If you kick the can down the road on verification, then you can have trouble because you are going to eventually trip over that can,” said Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator in 1994 talks with North Korea. “You really have to get agreement on what it means to monitor and verify.”
Senior U.S. officials say that successful monitoring will depend on extensive cooperation from North Korea. They say their model is South Africa, which voluntarily dismantled its six nuclear weapons after President F.W. de Klerk took office in 1989, joined the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and opened its sites to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Even so, extensive inspections would be required, including to what experts call “undeclared” sites where weapons or technology might be hidden.
Former officials say the groundwork for an effective verification process can be laid by requiring Pyongyang to provide an early accounting of how many nuclear weapons it has, where those weapons are located, where it produces fissile material and a list of personnel who have worked on their nuclear program.
“They need to tell us everything they have and make a commitment to a verification regime that ensures they are in compliance,” said Joseph DeTrani, a former Central Intelligence Agency official who served as a U.S. special envoy to the six-party negotiations.
One of the most difficult decisions Trump may have to make concerns the pace of North Korea’s denuclearization and the sequence of concessions on each side. Kim already has called for a “phased and synchronized” approach, spurring debate among former U.S. diplomats about whether Pyongyang is intent on moving methodically toward a grand bargain in which it would trade away its nuclear arsenal, or is maneuvering to put off denuclearization for as long as possible.
To secure far-reaching concessions by North Korea, several officials said, it will be important not to lift sanctions too early while simultaneously persuading Pyongyang that Washington is ready to respond to major denuclearization steps with security guarantees, formalizing an end to the Korean War and encouraging private companies to upgrade North Korea’s infrastructure and boost its agricultural sector.
Throughout the negotiations, former officials said, it will be imperative not to rely on North Korea’s oral assurances and to insist that its commitments be documented in detail—a lesson that was driven home by the February 2012 “Leap Day” agreement.
In that instance, although the U.S. insisted that agreement’s ban on long-range missile tests covered space launch vehicles, the North never formally accepted that interpretation. “They tested a space launch vehicle a month later and the deal blew up," Einhorn recalled.
Chris Hill, a former U.S. negotiator in the six-party talks, agreed that the U.S. side needs to be sure the understandings reached have no ambiguity.
“You have to give them no wiggle room,” he said.
An important challenge will be to keep the talks moving forward after Singapore, a task that will require the formal establishment of a negotiating channel. Sustaining progress may require top Trump administration officials not only to engage regularly with their North Korean counterparts but also to prod their own bureaucracy.
“What you need to do is maintain momentum,” said Joel Wit, the State Department coordinator for talks held with North Korea in 1994. “Don’t declare victory after the summit. It is just the beginning. You want to keep moving forward as quickly as possible. If you leave it to the bureaucrats, it will get bogged down.”