Donald Trump says that if his meeting with Kim Jong Un "is not fruitful," he will "respectfully leave the meeting." My advice would be to wear his walking shoes, because he will probably be taking a hike.
Anytime two enemies sit down to resolve their differences peacefully rather than through war, hopes rise that reason will prevail and compromise will emerge. On Twitter, Trump assured everyone, "Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!" It's tempting to think that his combination of insults, threats, and economic pressure has caused the North Koreans to see the error of their ways.
But negotiations are often a tedious exercise in killing time. Often one side is not willing to meet halfway. Often neither is.
These are likely to yield a meager harvest. North Korea began pursuing nuclear weapons some three decades ago. It agreed in 1994 to freeze its nuclear program but cheated on the deal. In 1999, it accepted a moratorium on long-range ballistic missile tests, only to lift it in 2006.
Since then, it has conducted nuclear tests, and it is believed to have some 60 nuclear weapons. It has also tested a variety of missiles, including one capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Through all this time, efforts by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama failed to persuade Pyongyang to renounce nuclear weapons.
Why isn't Trump likely to succeed? The first reason is that nuclear weapons are the ultimate security guarantee. After the U.S. missile strike against Syrian chemical weapons facilities, super-hawk Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said Bashar Assad had learned the hard way that "weapons of mass destruction won't create a military advantage" and "Kim Jong Un might want to learn the easy way."
Kim undoubtedly reached a different conclusion—that the U.S. felt free to attack because Assad lacks nukes. The strike is bound to have reinforced his belief that he can't afford to give up his most potent arms. If Saddam Hussein had been able to acquire nuclear weapons, he would still be in power, not dead from a hangman's noose.
Kim has generously agreed not to rule out the complete denuclearization that the administration demands. But that's a long way from signing up for it. He may be willing to place some limits on his nuclear arsenal or his missile tests, but such a modest outcome would be hard for Trump to accept.
The second reason to expect failure is that Trump has indicated we can't be trusted. Under the Obama administration, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear infrastructure and submit to a strict inspections regime. U.N. inspectors have repeatedly affirmed that Iran is complying with the terms.
Yet Trump, his national security adviser, John Bolton, and his nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, all detest the accord. The president said in January that if the Iranian agreement isn't amended to his satisfaction—which is unlikely—he'll abandon it.
He has until May 12 to decide whether to continue waiving U.S. sanctions on Iran, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker predicted last month that he won't. The lesson for North Korea is that even if one president agrees to certain obligations, the next one may renege.
In any case, Trump will have to confront an unpleasant prospect in the talks with North Korea. Kim is not about to trade a cow for a bag of magic beans. Getting him to surrender something the North Koreans value so highly and have invested so much to achieve would require comparable concessions on our part.
What might those be? It wouldn't be enough for the U.S. to lift economic sanctions, normalize relations, and guarantee the security of the regime—all of which would be hard for the administration to swallow. The North Koreans say they won't demand that we withdraw all our troops from the South, but they could insist on such deep cuts that we might as well be gone.
Whatever we get from North Korea, we can expect to pay for in full. Trump may not be willing to bear that cost—or be able to persuade Republicans in Congress to go along. In negotiations such as this, nothing big comes without painful compromises.
We can all hope Washington will succeed in getting Pyongyang to denuclearize. But no one has ever gone broke betting against it.