The Debate

Trump Dangles Possible 4th US-North Korea Summit: A Mistake?

Trump is depriving his lead negotiator of leverage by suggesting a new summit.

Ankit Panda
Trump Dangles Possible 4th US-North Korea Summit: A Mistake?
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

In remarks to the press on Thursday, U.S. President Donald J. Trump hinted that a fourth summit between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be possible before the end of this year.

At the White House, Trump was asked if he could meet Kim again “this year.” “At some point yes,” Trump replied. “Certainly they want to meet.”

“I think it’s something that will happen and we’ll see,” he went on. “I think something can happen.”

His remarks follow an encouraging opening from the North Korean side. On September 9, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui released a statement suggesting that Pyongyang was ready to talk to Washington at the working-level.

Her statement marked the first sign since the June 30 summit between Trump and Kim at the inter-Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that working-level talks might begin. At that meeting, Trump and Kim agreed to resume the working-level process.

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U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun would be the one leading those talks and Trump’s recent comments suggesting openness toward another summit may yet once again hobble the chances for any productive outcomes from the working-level talks.

Since the United States and North Korea turned away from the 2017 crisis and toward diplomacy in 2018, working-level talks have mostly been about summit coordination.

For instance, the brief talks that Biegun got to have with his North Korean counterpart before the failed February 2019 Hanoi summit were mostly concerned with logistical matters—certainly not nuclear weapons or disarmament, which the North Korean negotiating team simply wasn’t ready to discuss.

A summit with Trump can be a source of leverage for the United States. Even though after Hanoi, Kim Jong Un made clear that he would only talk to the United States following a “bold decision” by Washington change its policy, the North Koreans know that meeting with Trump is the most promising means by which to gain concessions.

Trump’s sudden declaration at the Singapore summit meeting last June to cancel the U.S.-South Korea exercises—without any consultation with Seoul—was evidence of that. With the hawkish former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton also out of the picture now, Kim may sense that his odds of gaining sanctions relief—a core North Korean demand—in another summit may be greater than they were in Hanoi.

The U.S.-North Korea process needs a serious working-level process and that process is most likely to be productive when a summit isn’t assured. The North Korean side has yet to react to Trump’s latest remarks on a possible summit; perhaps they won’t publicly.

But it’s hard to image the North Koreans taking working-level talks seriously when the urgency of setting up a deal there is low. If Trump’s open to meet Kim regardless, this all may be setting up for a repeat of what happened in Hanoi back in February.