Trading away the U.S.-South Korea military alliance in exchange for a denuclearized North Korea would be a bitter pill for Washington to swallow, but such a trade‐off would likely be necessary to reassure Kim that his regime will survive without nuclear weapons. This trade‐off would diminish U.S. influence in the region to a degree, but the risks of armed conflict between North and South Korea would not increase as a result. Seoul’s strong economy and steadily improving conventional military capabilities mean that it would not be defenseless should the alliance cease. North Korea would still possess a large conventional military, but without nuclear weapons it would not have a clear enough advantage over South Korea to invade and reunify the peninsula through military force.
The Trump administration could avoid the trade‐off entirely by adopting an ultimate objective of deterring the use of a nuclear weapon by North Korea rather than denuclearization, but the administration seems intent on keeping denuclearization as its end goal.
Even if the proposed U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks fail to reach a final settlement, the Trump administration can still reap other benefits by sitting down to talk. According to the South Korean negotiators, Kim said that the North would not test ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons so long as it is talking to the United States. While this would not prohibit North Korea from working on new missile and nuclear weapons technology, a testing moratorium prevents North Korea from gathering important information about its capabilities that it can only obtain through tests. Moreover, a moratorium would reduce the tension generated by such tests and the reactions to the tests. In this regard, the Trump administration should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Getting a pause in North Korean missile and nuclear testing would be a win for the United States and its allies even if talks ultimately break down.
Entering into negotiations with North Korea is the right choice for the United States, but the Trump administration should be somewhat circumspect about what talks can achieve. Kim Jong‐un is rational, but rationality does not mean he is trustworthy. The recent history of U.S.-North Korean relations is replete with broken promises, failed deals, and frustrating negotiations that ultimately lead nowhere. The Trump administration should go into negotiations with this history in mind and manage expectations about what negotiations can achieve, but it should not be afraid to begin talks and see what happens.
The United States should be cautiously optimistic about the Trump‐Kim summit. Direct talks will be good for reducing tensions in the short run, but the summit will be just the start of a long and difficult process that could easily fall apart. The most important short‐term task for the Trump administration is assembling a diplomatic team to attend the summit. Trump’s diplomatic bench is woefully shallow in general and the retirement of Joseph Yun from the State Department and withdrawal of Victor Cha’s nomination for ambassador to South Korea leaves the administration short on Korea expertise in particular.
Achieving a peaceful and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea through diplomacy is a tall order for the Trump administration, and it will face many challenges as it goes down this war. However, so long as denuclearization is the United States’ ultimate goal, diplomacy is a far better option than going to war to denuclearize the North by force.