The summit is on, it’s off, it’s sort of on again. It’s amateur night every night at the White House, and the fate of the US-North Korean summit scheduled for Singapore on June 12 will be decided by the coin Donald Trump flips each day: heads three days in a row means yes, tails three days in a row and the meeting stays cancelled.
So let us just assume the meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un actually goes ahead. What would be a good outcome within the bounds of plausibility?
One that avoids a nuclear war, obviously, but it’s equally obvious that neither party is going to abandon its nuclear weapons. The US, as the first country to build nuclear bombs and the only country ever to use them, sees having thousands of them as its birthright. North Korea’s regime has only a few, but sees them as the only real guarantee of its survival.
But that can’t be entirely true, because North Korea had already survived for 57 years before it tested its first nuclear explosive device in 2006. It was another dozen years before it built a very small but theoretically effective force of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could reach the US. Only now has Pyongyang achieved nuclear deterrence against the US. What protected it before that?
What served North Korea as deterrence until 2017, was a very big army (twice the size of South Korea’s army, plus the American troops stationed in South Korea), and the ability to destroy Seoul within a day or two using only conventional artillery and rockets.
So forget about both sides’ nuclear weapons and concentrate on the conventional balance.
South Korea has twice North Korea’s population but only half as many soldiers. Now that North Korea has nukes of its own, it too can afford to shrink its army by at least half. In fact, it can’t really afford not to.
Kim has already unilaterally suspended both nuclear weapons testing and further ballistic missile flight tests to attract Trump to the table, but he must come up with some other concessions to get the rest of what he wants. How about a deal that commits him to reduce North Korea’s army to the same size as South Korea’s, and an agreement by both sides to move their artillery at least 50km back from the inter-Korean border?
That sort of deal would save Kim a lot of money without exposing him to any risk: it’s his secret police, not the army, that keeps his population in line. South Korea would still have no credible ability to attack the North, and Kim’s own ability to threaten Seoul with a “sea of fire” would evaporate because he would first have to move his artillery back to the border along roads exposed to US and South Korean air power.
This is what successful diplomatic deals actually look like. They are often asymmetric in some details and give both parties what they really need.
What Trump needs is a diplomatic triumph that feeds his ego, while giving him with a plausible excuse not to insist on the unattainable goal of eliminating North Korea’s rudimentary nukes and ICBMs.
In return, North Korea gets an end to sanctions and huge savings on its bloated military spending.
No promises, but this actually could happen.