Summit preparations, even hasty ones, require substantive talks and logistical preparations. These kinds of interactions are prime opportunities to learn about North Korea’s regime: the way it thinks, what it knows, how it operates, what capabilities it has, how it feels, who’s in and who’s not. American negotiators can also get a better glimpse into the ways Kim Jong Un and his closest advisers deceive, perceive, and receive information about our own intentions and capabilities.
Given that no American scientist has been inside North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility since my Stanford colleague Sig Hecker saw uranium centrifuges there in 2010, every exchange between American and North Korean negotiators is an opportunity to gain valuable intelligence. It’s also a chance to signal what our red lines might actually be, in face-to-face quiet meetings out of the public glare, rather than in Twitter rants in full public view.
There are three other pieces of good news: The experts are back, the Japanese are in, and National-Security Adviser John Bolton is quiet—at least for the moment.
Substantive discussions are being led on the U.S. side by Sung Kim, a veteran diplomat who served as the ambassador to South Korea and the special representative for North Korea policy in the Obama administration, as well as the special envoy for the six-party talks about North Korea’s nuclear program in the George W. Bush administration. This is, thankfully, no Jared Kushner moment. With issues this numerous, this complex, and this high-stakes, it pays to have someone leading the team who knows the difference between low- and highly enriched uranium and who has been around the block with the North Koreans before.
Trump has also been conferring with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and will see him before the Singapore summit, if it materializes. Japan, a treaty ally of the United States, has serious vested interests in the region’s security balance. Like South Korea, its defense relies on America’s “nuclear umbrella.” Any agreement that involves rolling back America’s nuclear capabilities or reduces American troops on the Korean peninsula affects the region, and Japan in particular. And Abe is no pushover. He’s already cautioned Trump about North Korea’s “promise now, renege later” playbook. No lasting deal can or should be made without full consideration of the ramifications for Japan and regional stability writ large.
The third piece of good news is that Bolton has gone relatively silent. What a difference a few days make. Last week, Bolton’s idea of “denuclearization” along the Libyan model proved decidedly unhelpful, suggesting in pretty clear terms that the “deal” he really wanted was complete surrender and decapitation of the Kim regime. From Pyongyang’s perspective, what’s not to like?