As the leaders of the United States and North Korea prepare to meet for the first time, the North Korean nuclear issue sits delicately poised between crisis and breakthrough. Under the Trump presidency, North Korea’s scripted brand of hyperbole and brinksmanship is encountering the political theatre of President Donald Trump. Any US president confronted by a direct threat from North Korean nuclear missiles would treat it as a first-order security challenge. Yet Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, and showmanship, have also elevated North Korea’s regional melodrama in ways that potentially advantage Kim Jong-un. Even if it fails to yield any tangible outcomes, meeting a serving US president would still be hugely beneficial to Pyongyang as a means of strengthening Kim’s domestic and international position, particularly in respect of its chronic legitimacy deficit in the inter-Korean comparison.
The risk of renewed conflict on the Korean Peninsula has seemingly receded, partly owing to the engagement efforts of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. However, the very existence of a democratic, prosperous South Korea is key to understanding the North Korean regime’s insecurity. Pyongyang also sees its nuclear card as a means of decoupling the United States from its Asian allies, raising questions about what the Trump–Kim summit can realistically achieve on denuclearisation. The risk of a lapse into further crises is extremely high.