By waiting to act more decisively against the North Korean nuclear threat, President Trump gave Kim Jong-un time to undertake successful diplomacy and gain significant advantages. The upcoming summit may ultimately accomplish nothing better than the much reviled 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
The Panmunjom Declaration issued by Mr. Kim and Moon Jae-in in April commits the two Koreas to accomplishing complete denuclearization of the peninsula, a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War and cessation of hostile military behavior. Absent a new provocation from the North, Mr. Moon would be hard pressed to cooperate in a U.S. military action.
Mr. Kim has strong incentives to cultivate ties with South Korea and a less hostile relationship with the United States. Its population is approximately one-half that of South Korea but its GDP is one fortieth. Comparisons of social indicators are terrible — life expectancy is 10 years shorter, infant mortality six times higher, the homicide rate is nearly three times greater and a smaller share of the North's military age male population is healthy enough for service.
Mr. Kim and his predecessors have kept North Koreans placated through sanctions, famines and poverty by cultivating fear of American military power. A deal with Mr. Trump could bring North Korea tangible security and a bounty of new investment and substantial cross-border commerce with the South.
Accomplishing complete denuclearization would be extraordinarily difficult.
From an American perspective, guaranteeing complete removal of missiles, nuclear weapons and weapons-grade nuclear material requires frequent and intense visits by U.S. inspectors — experience elsewhere indicates reliance on international agencies won't pass muster. Going to zero is tremendously more difficult to verify than, for example, U.S.-Russian agreements to reduce intercontinental ballistic missiles — those weapons can be inventoried by satellite.
Even if Mr. Kim acceded to "whatever it takes," what he believes North Korea should logically expect in return could prove tough for Washington to swallow. An acceptable security guarantee could require withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South and an end to the U.S. nuclear umbrella that protects South Korea from the North and China.
If South Korea, as part of assurances in a peace treaty, were comfortable with complete denuclearization so defined, the U.S. security presence would appear an anachronism of the Cold War. However, as North Korea's economy begins to prosper and the two Koreas behaved toward each other more like the United States and Canada, which way does the domino fall?
China has good reason to fear it would fall toward the West, much as Vietnam did after reunification. China could see a rejuvenated, effectively combined Korea — North Korea providing inexpensive factory labor for a technologically advanced South Korea — a considerable challenge to its efforts to promote state directed capitalism throughout Asia.
China could bully its more unified neighbor militarily, akin to its antics in the South China Sea, and exert considerable economic pressure.
Iran, North Korea, Russia and China are tacit allies in a nuclear whack-a-mole game. The latter two provide missile and nuclear technology and other support to their lesser partners. Iran is currently believed to be keeping key weapons related technology in North Korea to avoid detection by international inspectors. Either Russia or China could provide similar services to both rogue states in the event of a North Korean denuclearization deal with the United States.
North Korea or Iran could be quickly renuclearized with Russian and Chinese missile and weapons technology. Once the South has substantial investments and trade with the North — and the North's products are finding their way into U.S. and other Western supply chains through the likes of Samsung — a gradual erosion of North Korean compliance with a denuclearization agreement would become quite difficult for either South Korea or a future U.S. president to resist.
Ultimately, any deal Mr. Trump strikes that does not include credible commitments from Russia and China to not enable North Korean cheating won't be worth much.
Given China's behavior on trade issues and in the South China Sea and Russia's seizure of the Crimea — in violation of its 1994 agreement with the United States and the U.K. to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity when it relinquished Soviet-era nuclear weapons — such assurances from Beijing and Moscow have little value.
In the simplest terms, Mr. Kim appears to have outmaneuvered Mr. Trump.