What Kim Jong Un And Donald Trump Will Be Bargaining For

[ Posted Thursday, May 10th, 2018 – 17:26 UTC ]

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has agreed to meet with Donald Trump next month in Singapore, which will be a historic summit meeting. This meeting will in fact be unprecedented, as no North Korean leader has ever previously sat down with a United States president. Predicting what will come out of this meeting is really anyone's guess, since both leaders can be described as mercurial (and even that's being polite to both of them, really).

Donald Trump has already convinced himself he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for even making the meeting happen. Well, perhaps... and then again, perhaps not. Unlike Trump, the rest of the world (and, assumably, the Nobel prize committee) will have to wait to see what actually comes out of this meeting before making such a determination. Nothing is guaranteed, in other words. The meeting could fizzle, and not produce much of anything.

One has to wonder exactly what Kim Jong Un is up to, because so far the impetus for this meeting has all come from him. After spending a year being as belligerent as possible, with multiple nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile test-firings, Kim suddenly decided to reach out to Trump. This turnaround seems planned and stage-managed by Kim, so it's worth exploring what he hopes to get out of his sudden burst of diplomacy.

The turnaround began just before the Winter Olympics were held in South Korea. Kim wanted his athletes to attend, which they did as part of a unified "all-Korean" team. Kim promised to cease all his saber-rattling for the duration of the games as a goodwill gesture. Since this turned out so well for him, Kim reached out even further after the games were over. Trump responded positively to Kim's overtures, which has led to the meeting being scheduled.

Many have already pointed out the unconventional nature of this meeting. Normally, such a leader-to-leader summit meeting is only held at the end of protracted negotiations, when a complicated deal has already been largely hammered out. The leaders push the process over the finish line and have something to sign at the culmination of the summit. But Trump is just as unconventional in his diplomatic efforts as he is with everything else, so he's fine with meeting Kim at the beginning of such a process rather than at the end. Perhaps the two will eventually have a second summit, complete with a real signing ceremony.

Both sides have their own wish lists for what could be covered by such a bilateral agreement. North Korea and the United States have different concerns, different objectives, and different things they feel they cannot bargain away. Trump may even have his own personal wish list, separate from what the State Department and the Department of Defense could agree to, which may complicate matters even further. Indeed, people in Washington are already nervous about what Trump could say in a one-on-one meeting with Kim, when his top aides aren't around.

Putting that aside, let's take a look at what each country will be bargaining for. Some of these objectives have already been achieved, some are underway, some could be part of a deal, and some are not likely to happen at all.


What Kim Jong Un wants

Kim Jong Un first wanted to be seen as Trump's equal on the world stage. North Korea is in no way equal to the United States, but he has already achieved this feat by getting Trump to unconditionally agree to a meeting. Up until Trump, a meeting with a U.S. president was held back as a big prize to be awarded to a hostile country's leader after they had already agreed to certain concessions. Trump flipped this model on its head, and by doing so gave Kim one of his biggest objectives up front. Because Kim has a nuclear arsenal and because he is meeting with Trump, he can reasonably claim (to his own people, mostly) that he is indeed Trump's equal in the negotiations.

Kim also wants to stop the economic sanctions against his country. These have hurt North Korea, although how badly is debatable, since they are such a closed society. Trump may well be right that getting China to increase economic pressure on North Korea was what got Kim to the bargaining table in the first place. This will be one of the largest bargaining chips Trump has in the negotiations, and it is likely that it will be held out as the end prize -- sanctions will only be lifted after North Korea fulfills all the rest of whatever is agreed to.

Kim has also indicated that he's truly reaching for the brass ring -- the formal end of the Korean War. Technically, the Korean War never ended. There was no peace treaty when the shooting stopped back in the 1950s, there was merely an armistice. This would be a huge symbolic achievement that both sides could brag about, but like the sanctions Trump would be smart to only agree to signing such a treaty after North Korea is in compliance with the rest of the deal.

Whether or not a formal end is declared to the Korean War, one of Kim's biggest goals is to get a promise of non-aggression from America. North Korea has been convinced -- for decades, now -- that America is eternally on the brink of invading their country again, to overthrow the communist regime. It's the Cold War in miniature, really, since both the Soviet Union and the United States both believed this of each other for many decades. Kim wants an iron-clad promise that the U.S. won't launch a nuclear first strike against North Korea, and won't invade using conventional military methods either. Since the U.S. has never really wanted to invade in the first place, such a non-aggression pact should be a pretty easy thing for Trump to agree to.

Beyond preventing a first strike or invasion, Kim is likely to press for the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea. Trump has even sounded open to this, since it fits in with his campaign slogan of pulling back the U.S. military from around the world in order to focus on "America first." The Pentagon, however, is going to argue strenuously against such a move. American troops have been in Korea for 70 years now, as a threat to North Korea and as hostages against their bad behavior. If North Korea attacked South Korea, American soldiers would die on the front lines -- which would immediately bring about a U.S. military response. That is their purpose for being there, in other words, to guarantee that the price for such an attack is too high for North Korea to contemplate. Due to this longstanding policy, it is not very likely that the Pentagon will allow Trump to agree to pull all the troops out in any treaty. Trump may be able to agree to a reduction in the number of U.S. troops, but that's as far as America is currently willing to go, really, and even that would result in serious political pushback in Washington.

Kim Jong Un has said he wants to "denuclearize" the entire North Korean peninsula. To him, what this means is that he gives up his nuclear weapons and his nuclear facilities while the United States removes not only any nuclear weapons they have on South Korean soil but also removes the "nuclear umbrella" from both South Korea and Japan. Since the end of World War II, we have sworn to protect both countries -- with nuclear weapons, if necessary -- from any adversaries (mostly China, up until recently). In Kim's eyes, he's only justified in giving up his own nuclear arsenal if he is assured that America will never use nukes against him. However, America is never going to agree to lifting the nuclear umbrella from either Japan or South Korea, so this wish is almost certain to go unfulfilled.

Kim's ultimate goal, as crazy as it sounds, is to reunify all of Korea -- under his regime. In this rosy scenario (for him), South Korea will see the error of their capitalist ways and agree to join the North and worship the Glorious Leader. This isn't likely to come up in any talks with Trump, but it is worth noting that Kim sees this as his ultimate objective.


What Trump wants

Donald Trump also wants the rest of the world to see him as a great diplomat. Hence his longing for a Nobel. However, with his violation of the Iran nuclear deal, this is less and less likely no matter what happens in Singapore next month.

Trump began with limited objectives, some of which Kim has already agreed to. Yesterday, as a good-faith move, Kim released three American prisoners he had been holding. Kim's good-faith efforts seem to be part of a planned charm offensive in the buildup to the summit meeting. He began this by meeting with the South Korean leader before the Winter Olympics. The North Korean athletes were welcomed at the games, in exchange for Kim promising good behavior while they were happening -- no more nuke tests, no more provocative intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Kim has held to this pledge ever since, but could reverse course at any moment.

Kim has now also promised to destroy his underground nuclear weapons test facility (which may have been so badly damaged by his last test -- his first of a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb -- that it is now of limited use to him anyway, it is worth noting). He has not done so yet, but the test site destruction is already scheduled to take place. Now, this sounds impressive, but it really isn't. A nuclear test site is not the same thing as, say, a nuclear reactor. A test site is basically a bunch of tunnels dug under a large mountain. It wouldn't be that hard for Kim to build a new one, in other words.

But back to what Trump wants. Any agreement would have to begin with a complete ban on North Korea ever testing nuclear bombs, and may well also ban any long-range missile testing. What worries America the most is not just that North Korea has nukes, but that they're very close to being able to launch those nukes at any city in America, so this will be a major part of what we'll be looking to curtail.

Trump's real goal for an agreement -- what he should hold out before agreeing to formally end the Korean War, in other words -- is the destruction of all nuclear weapons North Korea currently has, the destruction of all North Korea's I.C.B.M.s, and the destruction of the entire nuclear infrastructure that North Korea has managed to build. Trump would be a fool to allow North Korea to keep its reactors even if they destroy all their current nukes, because it would mean they could easily and quickly make more of them. The destruction of the infrastructure is actually more important than the destruction of the current North Korean nuclear arsenal, since it would set back their nuclear program by years, at the very least.

America would also like guarantees that Kim Jong Un does not profit from what he's already learned by selling nuclear technology or know-how on the world market. Unlike Iran, North Korea has already reached the end of the road of being a nuclear power. They have built not only an atom bomb, but a hydrogen bomb. They claim their weapon designs are so advanced that they are small enough to be carried by their ballistic missiles. They may have mastered the nuclear cycle for both plutonium and uranium (the two substances necessary to build nuclear weapons). All of that is a lot further than any other nuclear-wannabe nation has gotten. It's miles beyond where Iran was at when they agreed to the nuclear deal, by direct comparison. So America will have a vested interest in keeping this technical information from any other country or group in the world. But this will be the toughest thing to police even if North Korea formally agrees to it as part of a deal. It's a lot easier to inspect North Korea to find any hidden nuclear bombs than it is to keep a weapons design (which can be carried on a flash drive) from being sold to any other bad actors in the world, in other words.

The biggest non-nuclear item on Trump's wish list will be the demilitarization of the land surrounding the Demilitarized Zone (the D.M.Z.). This sounds like a contradiction, but isn't. The D.M.Z. is a small strip of land that cuts across the peninsula and was the final line that both sides agreed to when they stopped fighting back in the 1950s. The border regions on both sides of the D.M.Z., however, make it the most heavily-defended border in the entire world. There are more landmines there than anywhere else, and North Korea in particular has thousands of artillery pieces ready to go and seriously dug in, which threaten Seoul (which is within range, being so close to the border). This threat hangs heavy over South Korea, and removing it -- or, at the very least, drastically scaling it back -- would be the biggest achievement for the South Korean people.

America is fully in line with one of Kim Jong Un's big goals, and that is the end to the Korean War. It is a designation which has outlasted its purpose, to be blunt. It is a holdover from the earliest days of the Cold War -- it could even be said to have begun the Cold War, in fact. Reaching a peace treaty with North Korea would put an end to the fiction that the "hot" war is still going on. The rest of the world would see this as a positive development, and a landmark of diplomacy. Which brings us to Trump's new-found ultimate objective: not only being seen as the greatest deal-making president ever, but being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so. This seems pretty far-fetched, but if he manages to end the Korean War it is not entirely out of the question.



It's impossible to know what Kim Jong Un is up to. He is in the midst of a diplomatic game where so far he has been the prime mover of the pieces on the board. He controls the initiative, at this point. And he's obviously got a plan in mind, but nobody's quite sure of exactly what it is.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is almost as hard to predict. He obviously wants a big diplomatic coup, and not unlike the legislative efforts he's pushed in Congress, it may turn out that he's not even really all that interested in the details. He just wants the big television ceremony at the end, in other words.

Conventional thinking would seem to indicate that no matter what happens at the summit meeting, no hard-and-fast agreement will be signed by Trump at the end of it. Even if Trump and Kim do eventually manage to agree to a combined wish list without any contentious or intractable differences, such an agreement would have to be very detailed and contain all sorts of verification systems in order to prevent Kim from cheating. North Korea has, in the past, signed sweeping agreements -- even nuclear bans -- and then turned around and cheated on them. So we're beyond even Reagan's "trust, but verify" -- we would have to verify the heck out of anything Kim says he'll do before we would even consider trusting him one inch. So the most that could come out of the initial summit would likely be a joint statement of common goals. These are standard in the diplomatic world, and essentially state: "We would both like to work towards these large goals, but have not yet agreed on precisely how we will reach them." Even this would be a diplomatic achievement (and provide Trump with his televised signing ceremony), but it would merely mean the start of much more detailed talks about what each side commits to doing (and when). Any ultimate objectives would be held out until all the prerequisite steps had been taken and completely verified by both sides.

If Kim Jong Un is truly ready to deal, and if he's more interested in results than cheating (or even just stalling for time), then a historic agreement may actually be achievable. This would likely require a second summit meeting, after all the interim steps and verification had taken place, where Trump and Kim could officially end the Korean War.

That's making quite a lot of assumptions, though. Kim Jong Un may be playing this game of diplomacy for other reasons, to begin with. He may not actually be interested in giving up his nukes, or even ending the Korean War. It may all be a feint, to buy him time to complete his technological progress towards being able to launch a nuclear weapon on top of one of his ballistic missiles (which, so far, he has not proven he has achieved). It may all be a set piece designed to convince China that Kim Jong Un is trying to resolve the problem. The Chinese-North Korean relationship is key to understanding Kim Jong Un's objectives. And even if Kim does reach an agreement with Trump, he may well be planning on cheating. He may have already hidden a few nuclear weapons by burying them so deep no inspector will ever find them. North Korean leaders have certainly cheated in such a fashion previously, so he Kim may just be planning on following his father's footsteps in this regard. If this is true, North Korea will put on a dog-and-pony show for the world, swear it has destroyed everything, and then achieve their real objective -- the lifting of the economic sanctions.

The possibility of a real breakthrough in relations between North Korea and the United States does exist, though, and the Trump-Kim summit may be able to achieve such a breakthrough, even in limited fashion. This will be an improvement over the two men calling each other playground names on a regular basis, and all the sword-rattling that has taken place over the past few years. North Korea has already unilaterally made some concessions (the prisoner release, the halt in testing, and the planned destruction of their test site) to show their good faith. These are all positive steps.

What comes of the summit between the two countries' leaders is impossible to predict, at this point. Even if Trump and Kim do manage to sign some sort of intent agreement, a final treaty may never be achieved. But talking is always better than lobbing missiles at each other, so even this limited result would be a good thing for both countries, and for the rest of the world. Perhaps there will be enough overlap in both countries' wish lists to provide a foundation for such diplomatic efforts. If so, then the Trump-Kim summit will indeed go down as a historic breakthrough in relations between the two countries. It certainly would be an improvement over Trump calling Kim "Little Rocket Man," at the very least.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


20 Comments on “What Kim Jong Un And Donald Trump Will Be Bargaining For”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    CW: I replied to your question on previous post re: Ohio Redistricting.

    As for Korea, I guess we can hope for the best. It will be interesting.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Let's get real and spell out the bottom line.

    Which is to say that Trump will not be able to sign a nuclear deal with North Korea unless it is a better deal than the nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and the E3/EU + 3 now being complied with by E3/EU +2, a deal otherwise known as the worst deal ever put to paper. Ahem.

    I'm afraid the American president is in way over his head on this one, as per usual.

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I mean, seriously!

    If Trump signs a nuclear deal with NK that is better than the JCPOA, then he deserves his share of a Nobel peace prize.

  4. [4] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    North Korea has watched how China used flattery and tacky gifts to get Trump to bend over backwards for them, and they will use the exact same game plan. Trump has shown himself to be an incredibly horrible negotiator, and all the world leaders know it! This is not going to go well for us.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I've been looking at some of the comments from back when I first started commenting here.

    I miss our little discussions very much.

    And, I hope we can get back to those early days of this blog where there was no name calling or other juvenile behavior ...

    I miss you.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    donald is not a horrible negotiator, he's just out for the best deal for himself, not the united states. he'd give away seoul if jong un promised him a trump tower there.


  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:


    I think you may be overcomplicating the situation.

    Trump wants better headlines than Stormy Daniels and Mueller.

    Kim wants international recognition as legitimate.

    I am not sure who is the needier party.

    The phrase "dinner and a show" comes to mind.

    If there are any professionals left at State they are nervous. Everybody in N. Korea is perpetually nervous. It is a Stalinist State.

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:


    I've been looking at some of the comments from back when I first started commenting here.

    I miss our little discussions very much.

    And, I hope we can get back to those early days of this blog where there was no name calling or other juvenile behavior ...

    I miss you.

    I miss ya'all too and I also miss the way things were around here..

    But when tactics like "opposition research" on a commenter and a commenters' family are employed in an effort to extort commenter into silence become, either by commission or omission, acceptable debate tactics....???

    Well, let's just say I won't subject my family to such threats..

    I still lurk, but as long as those who are sworn to opposition research-based extortion are here....

    I won't be...

  9. [9] 
    neilm wrote:

    I agree with TS [7], Trump only want the next photo shoot, and Kim wants a chance to pull another fast one on the U.S. and sees an opening.

    Kim will put a price tag on everything - including another meeting - in fact I'd not be surprised if he waited until Trump had bragged about the current meeting to the point where he can't back out then ask the U.S. for a "goodwill/facility fee" for attendance.

  10. [10] 
    neilm wrote:

    Kim must know that the U.S. can't do much for him. This is all about China. I expect he got his knuckles rapped when he was summoned to Beijing a couple of months ago, and they told him they'd get serious about the sanctions unless he calmed things down. They probably gave him some tips on how to manipulate Trump (say night things about him in public and dangle hotel deals in private).

    The Chinese look at the sanctions as a useful tool the rest of the World hands them to control N. Korea. If China knows that the World will stand firm, they can switch on and off their adherence to get what they want. And what they don't want is behavior that results in a couple of U.S. carrier fleets floating around the East China and Yellow Seas.

    Since they can basically control the belligerence of a maniac, they can use him to needle Trump on demand - and the more Trump gets invested in his vision of a Nobel Peace prize, the better it gets for them. They can "help" Trump get his Nobel by holding out a tame Kim in exchange for rolling over on trade, etc.

  11. [11] 
    BKF wrote:


    Saw your post about oppo. You do what you gotta do. Sometimes life sucks - keeping your priorities straight is obviously the right thing to do.

    Your absence is definitely felt on SAB.

    Be well.

  12. [12] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Trump would very much like to get the management rights to the Ryugyong Hotel, at 105 stories it's the most impressive thing on the Pyongyang skyline, even if it's unfinished. Shoddy construction has never deterred Trump, but I'm afraid his need to emboss the TRUMP logo on the structure will be a sticking point. No logo in North Korea can be higher/larger/shinier than that of The Beloved Leader. This rule is strictly enforced at anti-aircraft gunpoint.

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Do you remember when and/or which post title(s) we had a very long discussion about the use of torture?

    I want to refer back to those but haven't been able to find them ...

    Can't CW do something about the issue you raised above?

  14. [14] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    stick around


  15. [15] 
    Kick wrote:


    North Korea has watched how China used flattery and tacky gifts to get Trump to bend over backwards for them, and they will use the exact same game plan.

    Absolutely correct, sir... with Putin pulling the strings of multiple puppets.

    Trump has shown himself to be an incredibly horrible negotiator, and all the world leaders know it!

    He doesn't really "negotiate" anything... just gets angry, talks a lot about how great he is, and then files lawsuits and threatens people.

    This is not going to go well for us.

    I think you're right, but they'll spin it like it went well regardless of how it actually goes. Example: Special Counselor Bobby Three Sticks has 5 guilty pleas and over a dozen indictments made public already with multiple sealed indictments and Michael Cohen taking in millions in the Benedict Donald Pay-To-Play Quagmire and more shoes still going to drop about where the outgoing money landed... meanwhile the GOP insists in unison that absolutely nothing has been found in a year and investigation should be wrapping up... that kind of utter ridiculous spin. :)

  16. [16] 
    Kick wrote:


    donald is not a horrible negotiator, he's just out for the best deal for himself, not the united states.

    Too true... a modern-day Benedict Arnold who would sell out his country if it meant money and praise for himself.

    They're going to prison for what they did. :)

  17. [17] 
    Kick wrote:


    Trump wants better headlines than Stormy Daniels and Mueller.

    Kim wants international recognition as legitimate.

    I am not sure who is the needier party.

    Benedict Donald Trump is the "needier party." :)

    The phrase "dinner and a show" comes to mind.

    Yes, sir, and the Orange Blowhole is interested in his ratings and little else. Sad.

  18. [18] 
    Kick wrote:


    I agree with Neil and TS. :)

    Trump only wants the next photo shoot, and Kim wants a chance to pull another fast one on the U.S. and sees an opening.

    Ah, the life of the unrepentant con artist who thrives on projection, fabrication, melodrama, and chaos while knowing exactly who he is and how he's lived his life and those he burned in the process... all while claiming he's the victim here. Sad.

  19. [19] 
    chaszzzbrown wrote:

    [10] neilm:

    I agree with TS [7], Trump only want the next photo shoot, and Kim wants a chance to pull another fast one on the U.S. and sees an opening.

    "Nice photoshoot you got there, Mr. President. Shame if sumfing should... 'appen to it."

  20. [20] 
    Kick wrote:


    "Nice photoshoot you got there, Mr. President. Shame if sumfing should... 'appen to it."

    *LOL* Poor Donald. ;)

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