A Prime Opportunity to Get Inside Kim Jong Un’s Head

Preparing for a summit with North Korea is allowing the U.S. to gain insight into an opaque regime. And there’s more good news, too.

Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In walking down carpeted steps
South Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in a handout picture provided by President Moon's office, on May 26, 2018 (The Presidential Blue House / Reuters)

Following news updates about President Trump’s on-again, off-again nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can make it feel as if the White House is prepping for the opening night of a Vegas show: If only the curtain goes up, all will be fine. And for the moment, it does look like the summit in Singapore will happen. As diplomats around the world rush about trying to make the meeting a reality, it’s worth noting that there is actually some very good news in the mad scramble toward Singapore.

The most important piece of good news is simply that both sides are engaged in serious dialogue, which reduces risk and generates insight. Just months ago—or, in Trump world, a national-security adviser and a secretary of state ago—some Pentagon insiders were estimating a 40 percent risk of military conflict between the U.S. and North Korea within a year. For now at least, the threat of a deliberate or even accidental military clash between the two countries has receded.

Generating insight is also important. North Korea remains one of the most opaque regimes in the world. Intelligence officials have called it the hardest of hard targets. It’s held that dubious distinction for years. In 2009, much of what we knew about the then–heir apparent Kim Jong Un came from the secondhand reports of a sushi chef. They don’t call it the Hermit Kingdom for nothing.

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?

Two big risks remain. The first is that Trump gets played by Kim. This is the fourth American president who has tried to walk North Korea back from the nuclear brink with a mixture of carrots and sticks. North Korea has proved adept at using the negotiating table to its own advantage, relaxing international pressure long enough to gain benefits and then resuming its nefarious nuclear activities later.

The second risk is that Trump gets deluded by … Trump. This president seems to want a swift and stunning breakthrough with North Korea. That’s an admirable goal. But it’s also extremely unlikely. Three generations of the Kim family have spent decades building a nuclear-weapons program to gain prestige, secure the regime’s survival, and deter the U.S. and its allies from attacking. Only one country in history, South Africa, developed a nuclear bomb and then gave it up. And many believe that move was driven by domestic political considerations, not international pressure.

If Trump’s sky-high hopes of fast, complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization in North Korea are dashed—as most experts believe they will be—what happens next? Only one thing is likely: We’ll find out on Twitter.