The surprise presidential summit between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping raises prospects that Kim will hold a similar meeting with Donald Trump. Kim’s Beijing trip, and progress towards an upcoming intra-Korean summit, indicates that he has consolidated sufficient power to travel and negotiate internationally.
A DPRK-U.S. summit, unlike a Chinese-DPRK or intra-Korean one, would be unprecedented. Unfortunately, holding such a meeting is far easier than securing a successful outcome. Ending tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program anytime soon is unlikely.
In all likelihood, Pyongyang will focus on pocketing propaganda gains —showing domestic and foreign audiences that Trump will meet Kim despite his defiance—while demanding major U.S. and South Korean military, economic, and diplomatic concessions.
Trump wants to show that he can achieve something his predecessors could not: an effective and enduring nuclear deal. Yet, as Abraham Denmark noted, Trump will demand complete, verified, and irreversible denuclearization, which would likely require onsite inspection, strategic trade controls, and other limits that Kim has always rejected.
In Washington, preparations for this presidential summit have barely begun. Trump’s new national security team is disinclined to offer Kim incentives beyond some status, sanctions relief, and pledges not to pursue regime change. The U.S. government machinery needed to execute any agreement remains understaffed, while Pyongyang’s willingness to work with international nonproliferation bodies like the IAEA remains unknown.
Kim’s trip to Beijing underscored China’s crucial role in any successful Korean settlement. Xi probably encouraged Kim to deescalate tensions given unease over Trump’s belligerent rhetoric and how Pyongyang’s provocations are reinforcing the U.S. military pivot to Asia. However, Chinese authorities may use a Kim-Trump summit to relax sanctions, bargain for changes in U.S. policies, and stir up distrust between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. The DPRK shares these objectives.
Given these diverging and incompatible goals, the most likely outcome of a Kim-Trump summit, if it comes to fruition, will be a freeze of further DPRK nuclear and missile tests, a commitment to further dialogue, and halting progress towards a more comprehensive and enduring settlement.