Trump and North Korea: a bonfire of the missiles?

There is a way through the Trump-Kim meeting that would satisfy demands on both sides – and keep South Korea and Japan reliant on the US

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What have we learned in the weeks since Donald Trump’s instant acceptance of a North Korean overture? Very little, and one could argue that this is a reason for optimism: a sea change in the relationship will not come about in the open. Still, there are a few signs. First, Trump’s stated intent to deal from strength was confirmed by the nomination of John Bolton as his national security adviser. That is the toughest possible message to send to Pyongyang before the summit. Seasoned observers of past negotiating cycles, laying aside other judgments on Bolton’s beliefs and reputation for rigidity, note that the nomination makes clear that any sham overture by North Korea would actually bring a conflict much closer. Thus, the stakes are piling up.

That the summit is a serious possibility is also clear from Shinzo Abe swinging behind Trump’s move. In the past Japan has consistently sought a hard line from the American administration, fearing weakness in the face of North Korea’s escalation of tests, and a future failure of the extended deterrence that America provides to its east Asian allies. Abe has decided to take his chances and go with the negotiation.

For Trump, being able to say that he has achieved a more tangible result than his predecessors’ diplomacy is tantalising

China has been put in an even more difficult position. North Korea’s chief ally does not seem to have known of Kim Jong Un’s overture in advance, and Trump’s instant answer has also given short shrift to China’s role. In fact, China faces tough trade measures just as the summit game starts. While China has professed to seek the denuclearisation of the peninsula, in order to retain its godfather role it now has to hope that Pyongyang rejects the international community’s long-held goal of CVID – complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament.

Who is preparing the summit on either side, and via which channels?

Guesses abound around possible go-betweens. Moscow has received a steady flow of North Korean visitors in recent weeks. In the past Russia was North Korea’s other security guarantor, and a less overbearing one than China in the last quarter of a century. But can Vladimir Putin afford to upstage Xi Jinping when Russia remains so economically dependent on energy sales to China, when it is mired, after others, in the Middle East and also locked in conflict with Europe? In China, the recent downfall of energy company CEFC’s CEO, after he sought to buy a large slice of Russian energy giant Rosneft may be a warning sign that Xi will keep Putin on a leash and not invest too deeply.

Another hypothesis is circulating around a track 1.5 format meeting between North Koreans and Americans in Sweden. Given the sensitivity of the issues, and the highly personalised authority centre in Pyongyang – and in Washington – it is unlikely that former officials, or analysts, could play any significant role.

Which leaves us with two possible channels. One is South Korean shuttle diplomacy. After all, it is President Moon’s envoys who broke the news from Pyongyang about the Trump-Kim meeting. Of all possible sites for a summit, Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone seems the least risky and controversial option for both leaders. It is hardly believable, however, that South Korea, and particularly Moon Jae-in, a dove without strong defence establishment credentials, could really influence Trump’s entourage and least of all the president himself.

The remaining option is a secret channel between Trump and Kim run by both countries’ secret services. Mike Pompeo’s ascent from heading the CIA to the State Department makes such a scenario plausible.

If this hypothesis holds true, it means that the standard argument about “adults in the room” – seasoned practitioners of previous negotiations with Pyongyang – has fallen to the wayside. And this might give us an indication of possible results for the coming summit – if it happens, of course.

What could such a summit actually decide?

Traditionally, a meeting like this would have the groundwork laid by disarmament and counter-proliferation negotiators devising long-term packages comprising several succeeding stages in order to provide results that are acceptable to both parties, with time to give. It is exactly these solutions that have historically failed with Pyongyang: no agreement has ever survived the very first stage of implementation, and only immediate down-payments have occasionally been honoured, every ambiguity being later exploited to void the overall commitments. This was the case with the 1994 Geneva deal over five years. In February 2012, the so-called “leap day agreement” folded almost instantly because North Korea presumed the moratorium on missile testing did not cover satellite launches.

A summit prepared by secret services would have a quite different approach. Secret services do not create long-term international agreements. They deliver short-term fixes, with results instantly observable by their masters. Both Kim and Trump need quick and visible results, of a different kind. For Kim, North Korea’s first-ever summit with the United States is a triumph and changes his status in east Asia, and possibly beyond. For Trump, being able to say that he has achieved a more tangible result than his predecessors’ diplomacy is tantalising.

But declaring success on any mere verbal commitment made at such a meeting would further destroy Trump’s and America’s standing with regional allies Japan and South Korea. He must find solutions that keep them aligned and dependent on the US. Neither can Kim completely ignore China. It is bad enough that he has antagonised Beijing through his brinkmanship, only to then make a direct overture to Washington. But in the long term, his regime’s security cannot be guaranteed by any American treaty, and indeed relies on a combination of his strength and backing by China. Indeed, if tilting towards China creates a risk for North Korea’s sovereignty, tilting towards Washington is a risk to its regime. The former creates overwhelming Chinese leverage over isolated North Korea, but the second opens the gates to unpredictable changes through new interactions with the outside world.

So is there common ground for an immediately verifiable concession by Pyongyang that would not void its capacity for deterrence, yet be substantive enough to justify other immediate concessions by the US? Where is the short-term win-win that would justify the summit? We must think in complete opposition to the Iran model for the JCPOA. Iran was a nuclear threshold power, while North Korea holds an unspecified number of warheads, usually estimated in two-digit figures. Nobody knows how many, and nobody knows where. The US search for plutonium or nuclear enrichment sites has been a catastrophe. Who can forget the Clinton administration’s payment to Pyongyang in order to observe a cave that turned out to be fake?[1]

But warheads without delivery systems are a limited threat (except for future proliferation, of course). It is missiles, and the capacity to fit these missiles with warheads, that constitute the main threat. Building increasingly reliable intermediate-range ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles has been North Korea’s most remarkable development of the past years. To America, ICBMs matter over everything else in Pyongyang’s arsenal, including, of course, to the average American citizen. It so happens that such missiles cannot be easily concealed and transported without being observed; and that their pre-launch phase, even if they have previously escaped detection, is a moment of unavoidable vulnerability. In other words, cheating would ensure a “bloody nose” when they are detected in that phase.

So, if Washington is looking for a quick fix, this will be the first topic of discussion – because this first and immediate down-payment by Pyongyang has tangible results for America’s security. Perhaps Kim has sensed this. His reported words to Xi on 27 March include the notion that “South Korea and the United States should take interim and synchronous measures” in order to make denuclearisation possible. Behind this cloud may be his ask.[2]  

But it holds other benefits as well. While it delinks America’s direct security from North Korean adventurism, it relinks South Korea’s – and Japan’s, because these would still be under the threat of shorter-range missiles and therefore have to rely on American extended deterrence. And it may be politically opportune that this also provides a counter-model to the JCPOA with Iran, which skirted the issue of missiles.

This is not CVID, of course. But it is the immediate result on which the US can open a new phase – reassuring Pyongyang while not changing its relationship of extended deterrence to its neighbours. And while it is clear that Kim will ask for a lot in exchange for doing away with a key component of his deterrence capacity, let’s not forget that his father sought to trade missile technology export for cash from the US or from Europe. The best disarmament agreements have been primarily about missiles, not warheads. This is a model that could conceivably suit North Korean pride, unlike the Libyan model, where Muammar Qaddafi agreed to halt and cancel his weapons of mass destruction programme.

Neither Seoul nor Tokyo will like – would like – this conjectural outcome. But Trump has signalled often enough that he is not in the business of pleasing treaty allies. Bolton has said that he would like to bring these North Korean nukes to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but he may settle for a bonfire of ICBMs.



[1] The story of the Kumchangri underground construction of what seemed to indicate a nuclear reactor, which remains unexplained to this day, includes mentions of compensation (depending on the source) anywhere between 100 and 600,000 tons of food aid for two visits in 1999 and 2000.

[2] According to Xinhua (NCNA), 28 March 2018, available (in Chinese) at

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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