How Trump gained the upper hand in North Korea talks

  • North and South Korean leaders will meet Friday for an historic summit to discuss the possibility of a peace deal after decades of hostility.
  • It's a prelude to a meeting between North Korea's Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.
  • Here's why the U.S. is squarely in the driver's seat when it comes to making a deal.
A television news report showing pictures of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on March 9, 2018.
Jung Yeon-Je | AFP | Getty Images
A television news report showing pictures of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on March 9, 2018.

President Donald Trump recently confirmed that Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo secretly met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over Easter weekend, increasing the chances that Trump and Kim may have substantive talks when they meet.

If the administration stays on track, it is possible the talks may significantly reduce the threat of war on the Korean peninsula, strengthen America's overall national security, and achieve a diplomatic feat that none of the previous 12 presidents were able to realize.

There is justification for cautious optimism:

For the first time ever, the leaders of North and South Korea will meet face-to-face on Friday on the South Korean side of the DMZ. A peace treaty could be on the agenda.

And, at Pompeo's secret meeting with Kim, Trump said "a good relationship was formed." At no point during the both the Bush and Obama Administrations did legitimate possibilities for peace even exist.

Danger ahead

We must be clear-eyed, however, about the path ahead and remain grounded in reality. A lot could happen to derail the currently positive trends.

Kim could ask for immediate sanctions relief as the price for simply continuing to talk, which Trump has emphatically said he would not do. Trump could demand that Kim agree to a complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament before agreeing to any relief, which Kim is not likely to accept.

The North Korean leader may ask a high price for giving up his nuclear weapons. He may, for example, seek not just an ultimate peace treaty, but try to demand the early withdraw of the U.S. nuclear umbrella from South Korea and removal of all U.S. troops from the peninsula as signs of the "goodwill" Kim said he wanted to see from the U.S. and South Korea.

If Trump enters negotiations with the explicit intent on denuclearizing North Korea in the near term, then the talks will collapse and the risk of war will return to late-2017 levels. This outcome is not in America's interests, however, and not necessary for U.S. security.

Many pundits argue that Kim has no intention of actually giving up his nuclear weapons. Kim fed this belief himself when he said in his 2018 New Year's speech that "our republic has at last come to possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent, which no force and nothing can reverse."

Trump's demands

The good news, however, is that whatever Kim's intentions, they don't directly threaten our national security.

The United States is in a dominant position in these negotiations and our powerful conventional and nuclear deterrent can, quite literally, protect American interests indefinitely—even if full denuclearization is not realized for the foreseeable future.

America and South Korea possess a military superiority over North Korea with which Pyongyang could never compete. Even if Kim does now possess a few missiles, Washington's advantage in nuclear weapons is overwhelming. Trump is therefore is in the dominant negotiating position because he is under no pressure to have to make a deal.

Trump, who rose to prominence as a tough negotiator, will demand much from Kim while offering little in return, leveraging America's substantial conventional and nuclear military superiority to his advantage.

Kim, on the other hand, is suffering under increasing pressure from the sanctions and is under great pressure to make a deal. Time is on Trump's side, because the longer it takes to get to a deal, the longer it takes for sanctions to be lifted and the greater the risk over time that Kim's grip on power weakens.

Potential for success

Here's where the two leaders could come to terms of agreement.

One near-term objective that has some potential of success would be if Kim agreed to a verifiable removal of all long-range missiles from the North's inventories in exchange for limited sanctions relief, which would eliminate the threat of nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland, while promising to continue long-term negotiations towards denuclearization.

In this way, both sides come away with something, the talks continue, and the risk of war is further decreased.

Critically, the United States holds most of the cards. The U.S. can comfortably wait out years of tough negotiations to reach a mutually agreeable outcome, because our military deterrent can keep the country safe indefinitely.

But we must realize that we can't force Kim to denuclearize short of launching a catastrophic war (which would be devastating for American security and prosperity), and we should not push Kim into a corner where he feels he must use his weapons.

President Trump has pushed aggressive diplomacy with our allies, regional powers, and with North Korea directly with a view to ensure America's continued national security and economic prosperity.

If the discussions eventually result in a denuclearized peninsula, he will have achieved a truly historic outcome. But the comforting news for America and our allies is that Trump can ensure, indefinitely, the security of our nation and regional allies regardless of what Kim may eventually do.

Commentary by Daniel L. Davis, a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.