The chess board

The conflict between North Korea and South Korea began just a few years after the two sides were created by an agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. It broke into war in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea and the U.S., which had diminished its presence in the South, returned to fight alongside the South. China joined in to support the North and the two sides signed off on an armistice, which itself took two years to reach, in 1953.

The idea that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un can end a six-decade stalemate in a summit meeting seems impossible. But the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea have never met before. In very broad brush terms, here’s how the pieces line up for North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. in the complex diplomacy ahead:

North Korea

Strength: It deters the U.S. and South Korea from attack with a formidable artillery that can strike Seoul and its environs within 10 minutes. Its nuclear weapons capability is growing, nearly but still not certainly, to a level where it can strike the mainland U.S.

Weakness: It is poor, isolates its people from travel and is now being subject to some of the worst economic sanction it has ever faced.

Goal: Unclear in the short-term. Its regime and state media have said virtually nothing about upcoming diplomacy with South Korea and the U.S. Outside analysts frequently argue the intentions of the North Korean regime. Some believe North Korea’s argument in recent years that it needs nuclear weapons to deter the U.S. from invasion. Others focus chiefly on statements that it is driving toward “final victory,” the completion of Kim Il Sung’s desire for North Korean control of the entire Korean peninsula. One potential outcome of the Trump-Kim summit, perhaps less so of a Moon-Kim summit, is clarification on what North Korea wants.

What would be surprising: North Korea deciding to give up its nuclear weapons and further pursuit of them. Even more surprising would be if the Kim regime decided to give up its goal of ruling the Korean peninsula, agreed to shut its gulags, open the country’s borders and endeavor to interact with the world to build its economy.

What seems likely: With the U.S., an offer to slow its weapons development in return for a drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea. With South Korea, an agreement to allow more reunions of South Koreans with North Korean relatives, other civilian exchanges in return for aid.

South Korea

Strength: A $1 trillion economy, deep ties with countries around the world, including North Korea’s closest friends, China and Russia, and the U.S. as its strategic defender and military partner.

Weakness: Divided affinity between South Korea as a nation and value for Korean people as a whole. Uncertainty about whether unification is worth the price. Little-spoken sense of shame about the plight of North Koreans.

Goal: In the short term, South Korea’s goal is to prevent conflict between North Korea and the U.S. Longer-term, South Korea desires unification with North Korea slowly, perhaps over decades to prevent economic upheaval, with the South in charge.

What would be surprising: South Korea taking North Korea’s side in seeking the immediate, or at least fairly speedy, withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South. On the flip side, it would be equally surprising for South Korea to insist on the closure of North Korea’s gulags and opening of its borders.

What seems likely: South Korea will put copious amounts of aid on the table for North Korea. It may pressure the U.S. for fewer or smaller military exercises and, less likely, some reduction of the U.S. troop presence.

United States 

Strength: World’s largest military and distance from the Korean peninsula.

Weakness: Public disconnect from the conflict and poor understanding of the history, risk and constraints involved. Trump’s inexperience with North Korea, and demonstrated lack of preparation in other foreign policy matters, may lead to capricious decisions.

Goal: Eliminate risk that North Korea will attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons. Live up to defense treaty with South Korea.

What would be surprising: Trump agreeing to significantly reduce U.S. troop presence in South Korea, or eliminate it entirely, without taking control of North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons and/or other concessions. Also, Trump pushing North Korea on any other matter besides its weapons program.

What is likely: Trump extracts some clarity from North Korea about its goals/intentions, changing the analysis and diplomatic activities in dealing with it. Walks out in frustration over not achieving meaningful change in North Korea’s weapons activities.