Foreign Policy Blogs

Trump vs Kim: The Art of the Nuclear Deal

Trump vs Kim: The Art of the Nuclear Deal

The US and North Korea are likely to attempt diplomacy for a few months, but impossible expectations and intentionally vague promises could frustrate both sides. If this causes the deal to fall through, bilateral tensions could boil over once again.

On 29 April 2018, the world watched as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands and crossed the border in an historic diplomatic moment. The next country on North Korea’s peace tour appears to be the United States, where President Donald Trump initially agreed to a summit to further his goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula – then withdrew the offer – then seemingly put it back on the table. However, Trump should prepare for the worst: there is ample evidence that both leaders are master showmen specializing in grand rhetoric with few tangible steps.

Conflicting expectations

Trump and Kim are working towards very different goals. Trump presumably wants to become the president who denuclearized the Korean Peninsula, and all other concessions are trivial to him in comparison. In contrast, Kim seeks the lifting of economic sanctions and a removal of a threatening US presence in South Korea at the very least, indicated by his sudden focus on economic progress and pledge to denuclearize in exchange for guaranteed security. Furthermore, if he truly has achieved his intended progress with North Korea’s nuclear program, he would likely demand recognition as a nuclear state.

It therefore becomes clear why the negotiations are at risk of falling apart before they have even begun. The leaders’ respective expectations are all non-starters: Kim will not easily give up his biggest bargaining chip, the US and UN have no plans to lift sanctions or recognize Pyongyang’s nuclear legitimacy, and the US cannot pull troops fully out of South Korea because it would solidify China’s position as the dominant force in the Asia-Pacific region. If Trump and Kim are unable to reconcile their conflicting objectives, the lack of progress could frustrate them and drive them back to aggressive rhetoric and brinkmanship.


Kim’s alleged promise to shut down the nuclear weapons program in exchange for confirmation that the US will not invade instills hope, but remains vague enough to avoid actually having to follow through. It is still unclear what Kim will consider sufficient evidence that he is safe from a US attack: he could demand an end to the Foal Eagle and Key Reserve joint military drills, or use continued American military presence in South Korea as a reason to resume his own arms buildup. Even if Pyongyang were to give up its nuclear program, its cyberwarfare program — responsible for the “Wannacry” ransomware attack and multiple cryptocurrency thefts — could likely continue to wreak havoc.

The Trump administration is also able to revise standards at any time to press for North Korean compliance. Even as Pyongyang returned three US detainees and Trump praised Kim for his “honorable intentions,” the US State Department released scathing criticism of Pyongyang’s “egregious human rights violations” and condemned the Kim regime as “one of the most repressive and abusive governments in the world” in a possible readjustment of terms of cooperation. Just as one side makes any small concession, the other can adjust the dial and demand more.

New variables

If Trump and Kim meet, it will likely  involve a lot of Trump’s empty showboating — except this time he’s meeting his match. If the US fails to lift sanctions or remove its military presence and Kim strays away from his promises of denuclearization, the two frustrated leaders would likely have to return to their reliable practices in grandstanding and threats.

Not only could the proposed conference between US and North Korean figureheads end in disappointment for those hopeful of nuclear de-escalation, but the relationship between Moon and Trump may also be in danger. Kim has successfully centered the diplomatic narrative around “inter-Korean peace” and framed the US as an outsider. For now, Moon is scrambling to include the US in all Korean dialogue, going so far as to suggest that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to stabilize the region. However, as the Korea Research Center reports that 78% of South Koreans find Kim trustworthy after the Korean summit, Moon may now have two relationships to cautiously balance: one with Trump and one with Kim, both of which are notoriously volatile and urging him to support their interests. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula may spike once again, this time with new complexities as the three countries strive for their versions of stability.

Moving forward

Even if a US-North Korea summit fails to denuclearize the peninsula, Kim and Moon have gained new political advantages. After enduring criticism for appearing weak against Pyongyang, Moon’s dedication to peaceful negotiations has boosted his political clout.  The diplomatic triumph could secure his proposed extension to Seoul’s presidential term limits, instill much-needed confidence in his economic policies, and distract from his party’s sexual harassment accusations. If Seoul and Pyongyang successfully sign an end to the Korean War, Moon’s Democratic Party is almost guaranteed to secure the presidency for another term. Across the 38th parallel, Kim could gain a new ally to increase his legitimacy on the international stage, decrease his dependence on China, and more effectively further his own economic policies – potentially with Seoul’s help. Although the US-North Korean relationship is still uncertain, Moon and Kim have both emerged as winners from this diplomatic breakthrough.


This article was first published on Global Risk Insights, and was written by Kiana Mendoza.