In a New Year’s Day speech, Kim hinted at one possible deal: capping the country’s production of nuclear weapons and promising not to use them first in a conflict or transfer them to others in return for relief from international sanctions. “We declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them,” the North Korean leader noted, but none of that could happen while the United States persisted in pressuring his country.
When Pompeo was asked about the proposal in a recent interview with Fox News, he didn’t rule it out. He said he was exploring ways with the North Koreans to “decrease the risk to the American people”—a more modest goal that wouldn’t necessarily require eliminating the nuclear program outright.
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The half-measures agreed to at the next summit could come in a variety of forms. The United States and North Korea could, for instance, join with China and South Korea in symbolically declaring an end to the Korean War as a prelude to a peace treaty, or establish liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang. The United States could ease sanctions against North Korea or carve out humanitarian and other exceptions to those sanctions, while Kim dismantles the intercontinental ballistic missiles that directly threaten the U.S. mainland or facilities such as the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
The details of whatever agreement Trump and Kim reach in their next summit—assuming they reach one at all, or even meet in the first place—will represent the clearest indication yet of what exactly the Trump administration is up to with North Korea. Are these talks still really about denuclearization? Have they morphed into arms-control negotiations? Or have U.S. officials come to the realization, as they have in the past with countries such as Pakistan, that the best they can do is learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea so long as it isn’t overtly threatening?
Then, of course, there’s the wild card of Trump himself, who at the last summit decided off the cuff to cease U.S.-South Korea military exercises and could have other surprises in store for when he and Kim meet again. Even if his advisers believe a declaration ending the Korean War is premature, the president could go ahead and promise it anyway. Even if the North Korean leader doesn’t request that the United States reduce its military presence in South Korea, Trump might see fit to do it anyhow, since he thinks it’s a rip-off for the United States.
Kim is hardly the most predictable leader either—his government has blown off meetings with American officials and he’s ominously threatened to go “a new way” if the United States doesn’t let up pressure on his country.
Regardless, U.S. officials will spend the next month seeking to line up “deliverables” for the summit. But there’s no accounting for what happens when their boss gets in the room with Kim Jong Un.