A failed US-North Korea summit could increase the risk of armed conflict

Key Points
  • There's a lot at stake if negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, due to occur in May or June, fail to produce any progress, according to experts.
  • The upcoming talks are seen as a test for diplomacy, so if they don't succeed, that could increase the chances of military action.
Pyongyang, April 15, 2018: Members of a North Korean youth league before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

If diplomatic talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un don't produce any kind of agreement on the rogue state's nuclear weapons program, that could bolster Washington's appetite for military action, strategists warned.

The leaders are expected to hold a summit in late May or June following a tumultuous 2017 that saw both exchange heated insults against the backdrop of Pyongyang's frequent missile launches. While the anticipated meeting is considered a welcome respite from those escalating tensions, the stakes are high if it doesn't result in any progress on limiting the North's nuclear capabilities.

"If the North Korea-U.S. summit fails to conclude in an agreement, war risks will increase, exceeding previous levels, because of another failure of diplomacy," Alison Evans, deputy head of Asia Pacific country risk at IHS Markit, said in a Wednesday note.

Bilateral talks are expected to be complicated by the fact that the White House and Pyongyang hold different understandings of what it means to denuclearize.

Peace processes are generally seen as a test for diplomacy, so "when they fail, it is not just the specific peace process that has failed, it is diplomacy as a strategy that has failed," Bruce Jones, vice president and director of the foreign policy program at think tank the Brookings Institution, wrote in an April op-ed published on the Nikkei Asian Review.

Once decision-makers believe political settlements are unattainable, "then the logic of military solutions rises in salience," he continued.

North Korea has said nothing about 'denuclearization,' says expert
North Korea has said nothing about 'denuclearization,' says expert

Like Evans, he said that could be the case in North Korea: "The failure of a summit could substantially discredit the option of diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula, weak as it already is, and put us directly on the pathway to military conflict."

Foreign policy super-hawk John Bolton, the White House's new national security advisor, has previously made a case for preemptive strikes against the pariah state and the risks for military conflict are high under Bolton's watch, experts have told CNBC.

Should the summit fail, "it may actually bring us closer to war as we will have exhausted all diplomatic options," Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at a U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing earlier this month.

There may be a broad desire for diplomacy with Kim, but "the United States is talking more about military strikes than it ever has done before," according to Cha. The Trump administration "has spent most of its time generating papers about pressure and military options" rather than considering what price it is willing to pay for Kim to relinquish weapons, he said.