US-North Korea meeting could lead to historic peace or nuclear disaster—‘the devil is in the details’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands at the conclusion of their meetings at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island on Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

Monday’s historic meeting between President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a high-stakes gamble for Trump, says Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Northeastern. It could lead to Nobel Peace Prize nominations for the pair, he said, or to utter disaster.

The summit, held in Singapore, marked the first meeting between leaders of the two nations and resulted in Trump’s pledge to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea and Kim’s pledge to dismantle his nuclear arsenal.

Beyond those assurances—and the fact that two adversaries who were hurling threats of nuclear warfare at each other on Twitter months ago have now shaken hands—how significant was the meeting? Is Trump really in line to win a Nobel Peace Prize, as South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In suggested he should be back in April?

“If there are positive developments moving forward, and if Kim Jong Un does what he say he’s willing to do—and addresses the myriad human rights violations alleged against him—that could make both of them completely eligible for Nobel Peace Prizes,” Panagopoulos said.

“At the same time, this is a big gamble for Trump,” Panagopoulos said. “If the deal falls apart, he’ll be criticized in the United States for being naïve. Or worse yet, if he feels betrayed by the North Koreans, he might be inclined to react in a very hostile and exaggerated way, and that could be disastrous.”

As a political scientist, what did you take away from the summit?

It’s encouraging that we’ve entered into direct conversations with North Korea, but it remains to be seen just how committed North Korea will be to the pledges the country has made. North Korea has made similar pledges to denuclearize in the past and hasn’t necessarily kept its end of the bargain. So, while there’s definitely reason to be optimistic, there’s also a great deal of uncertainty moving forward.

What made this meeting different from negotiations in the past? Why is there reason to be optimistic?

The difference here is partly Trump himself. North Korea has been watching his management of the situation and may be interpreting Trump to be more willing to be more aggressive than previous leaders if North Korea doesn’t start to de-escalate. It’s conceivable that the new leadership in place in the United States is moving us along in a way that previous administrations have either been incapable or unwilling to do. That risk could be problematic for Kim Jong Un and his people and may have ultimately brought them to the negotiating table.

Aside from what was negotiated at the summit, what were the symbolic wins for each country here?

In the United States, this meeting reinforces Trump’s contention that he is the great negotiator who can bring parties to the table and make things happen. And he’s likely to get a lot of credit for doing something different, for his willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un. This summit also bolsters Trump’s foreign policy credentials and reinforces the claims he’s made about doing things in a way that’s very different from other administrations. The message is that he’s willing to try things, though it remains to be seen what will eventually happen as a result.

For North Korea, the fact that Kim Jong Un met with a global power like the United States elevates the status of his regime. Kim Jong Un can project an image of strength just for having met face-to-face with Trump, something that previous U.S. administrations were unwilling to do. Trump reasoned it was worth a shot to give Kim Jong Un this public relations victory in order to start the process of moving forward with a relationship that could be very beneficial not only to the United States but to many other countries as well.

What comes next?

At the moment, very few details are worked out about what exactly is involved in this deal. And, as we know, the devil is often in the details. Things could fall apart in the negotiations over these details; it’s a delicate situation moving forward. Furthermore, Trump will have to rely on diplomatic career professionals like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others to negotiate, rather than just a few very high-level individuals of his choosing. So, this will be a delicate process not only between the two nations, but in many ways a different approach within the Trump administration in terms of how these things are handled.