Barring further eleventh-hour theatrics, President Trump will meet with Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, on Tuesday morning (that corresponds to Monday evening in the U.S.). The summit, to be held in a hotel in Singapore, comes after years of ballistic missile launches, thermonuclear weapons testing, military exercises and threats of “fire and fury.”
But while all this nuclear posturing is a nightmare for the planet, it’s a dream for game theorists.
It may not have felt like it during the panicky moments, but the intercontinental nuclear standoff has been a kind of “game” — something like a game of chicken, except we’re all sitting in the speeding car. Some have already declared Trump’s victory at playing it. A reporter recently asked the president if he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. “Everyone thinks so,” Trump said.
Is “everyone” right? Does Trump deserve these plaudits just for sitting down with Kim? I spoke with experts on the game theory of war and experts on the Korean Peninsula to ask what they thought. The short answer: Trump’s unpredictability has been a boon to this point, and it has gotten him this far. But a new game starts on Tuesday, and that same unpredictability may be much less useful in the competition to come.
America’s stated goal has long been to denuclearize North Korea. There were plenty of ways to try to do that (remember the “bloody nose” idea?), but Trump and Kim have found their way, bloodlessly, to a summit. What drove them there — Trump’s need for a political victory, Kim’s need for security and legitimacy, or a host of other potential factors — is sort of beside the point. We know at the minimum that Trump’s standoff strategy didn’t prevent a summit. At best, it caused it. So, hold the Nobels for now, but some plaudits seem merited.
Even if the summit does not generate diplomatic fireworks — even if it doesn’t establish an American embassy in Pyongyang or get Kim to dump all his nukes by the end of the week — it will matter that it happened.
“Politics is a lot of symbolism,” David Kang, the director of the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute, told me. “And symbolism means a lot.”
The game that comes next will be different. Until now, the U.S. and North Korea have been engaged in a dangerous auction for safety and positions of nuclear strength, in which the bids are placed not in dollars but in risk. Wild posturing and saber-rattling are not just par for the course in this game — they’re expected and even rewarded.
The summit will be a different sort of game: a classic example of bargaining. North Korea has nukes and wants security and legitimacy, the U.S. has power and money and wants North Korea to not have nukes, and those are the horses they’ll be trading.
In the nuclear standoff game, Trump’s unpredictability may have given him an edge: In a game of chicken, it helps to be perceived as reckless. In the negotiating game, that same quality may turn out to be a drag: How do you trust a deal made with that same reckless man? Any deal coming out of the summit would have to be strong enough that it could survive even though both parties know the other has the potential to blow it up (figuratively, one hopes).
That will be a challenge for Trump for two reasons. The first is logistical: Denuclearization is time consuming, very difficult to verify, and maybe impossible to achieve — even if North Korea does get rid of all its nukes, it could always start over again from scratch. The second is personal: Trump is Trump and always will be. The American president is famously fickle, which could further weaken the value of his would-be guarantees.
“North Korea is willing to go into phased denuclearization, but the issue is timing,” Kang said. “Three, five, 10 years — something like that. And they want some real, credible relationship with the U.S.”
The longer the timeline, the more opportunity there is for “anarchy” (as international relations scholars would call it) to come into play. Parties have a habit of reneging on past agreements, whether diplomats like it or not. (The Iran nuclear deal is a handy example.) There is no international super-government in place to enforce any promises that might be made in Singapore. Agreements must be upheld solely by the parties who constructed them, and they’re under constant stress from the weight of potential defection. So even if Trump and Kim agree on a deal in principle, there’s no guarantee it’d stick. “Broadly speaking, those guarantees are impossible,” Robert Powell, a Berkeley political scientist, told me. “You can sign treaties, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to execute them.”
You can also schedule meetings, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to attend them. The spasmodic lead-up to the summit — it was not even three weeks ago that Trump canceled the meeting — is a good example of how quickly things can be disassembled.
At the summit, Trump’s capriciousness will meet North Korea’s steady endurance. The mere occurrence of the Singapore meeting can be seen as a long-sought victory for North Korea. The country had, Kang said, been engaged in slow, piecemeal nuclearization for decades. They decided to accelerate the process. It all culminated about 18 months ago, shortly before Trump was sworn in, when Kim claimed in a New Year’s speech that the country had tested a hydrogen bomb and entered the final stage of preparation for a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. “This provided a powerful military guarantee for defending the destiny of the country and nation,” Kim said. This new military might “drove the imperialists … into an ignominious defeat, and remarkably raised the strategic position of our country,” he added.
“Their new plan was, ‘Let’s stop pussyfooting. Let’s negotiate from a position of strength,’” Kang said. And that’s what they’re about to do. Powell agreed that this acceleration is what brought the U.S. to the table in Singapore. “Despite many red lines, the de facto red line seemed to be posing a nuclear threat to the territory of the U.S.,” he said, a threat that North Korea now apparently poses. “And that has forced the issue.”
North Korea, despite its reputation for irrationality, knew what it was doing and wanted the issue forced. “They clearly had a plan,” Kang said. “It’s not like they randomly woke up every day and said, ‘Maybe I’ll test a missile.’”
Tuesday, Trump and Kim will wake up and say … something. We’ll soon see just what, and what further plans they have in mind.
Read more: “How To Win A Nuclear Standoff”