The North Korea-US summit's worst-case scenario is if Trump and Kim Jong Un "walk out of this thing angry at each other, with deflated expectations — and then there's no place left to go, there's no more diplomacy, because you've used your biggest card right up front."
President Donald Trump is set to make history on June 12 in Singapore as the first sitting US president to meet a sitting North Korean leader with peace and denuclearization are on the table.
But if the summit fails, it could end in catastrophe, and that may be the point.
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes trips to probe North Korea's willingness to go through with denuclearization, something it has promised and reneged on multiple times in the past, Trump's stance on Pyongyang has emerged as very hardline.
Pompeo has demanded the "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization" of North Korea before the US offers any easing of economic sanctions on Pyongyang.
So far, North Korea has appeared amenable to these requests, but experts remain highly doubtful.
"There are two extremely unlikely outcomes" for the summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, said Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert at MIT.
The first unlikely outcome, Narang told Business Insider, is that "Trump walks away with Kim’s nuclear weapons," and the second is"catastrophic failure."
Narang said that more likely, Kim and Trump will partake in a photo shoot with handshakes and kind words. In that scenario, the US would accept some mixture of half measures to slowly wind down North Korea's nuclear programs while providing them with sanctions relief — much like the deals that have previously failed.
Narang called this outcome "kicking the can down the road," because it would likely only delay a serious confrontation between the US and North Korea over real denuclearization.
But Narang said that one theory is that Trump, or Kim, intended the summit to end badly.
A major element of Kim's pivot toward diplomacy appears to be swaying public opinion. Meanwhile, Trump's administration also touts his achievements on North Korea as evidence of his presidency's successes.
But both parties come to the talks with seemingly impossible expectations. North Korea reportedly asks virtually nothing of the US, while the US asks North Korea to disarm completely and immediately.
Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert and senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, tweeted that the summit's "biggest problem" was "overinflated expectations."
The US wants North Korea to lay down its arms before a US dime heads to Pyongyang, and Kim wants US and international tensions to thaw to kick-start its stalled economy. Both parties want what they want fast, and only one party can get its way.
"Whatever exactly the North Koreans hope to get out of the June summit, it doesn't sound like it overlaps very much with what Mike Pompeo is outlining," Pollack tweeted.
If both parties go in with flawed expectations for the summit, as it appears from public statements they have, the talks could end very badly.
"Kim’s strategy is smart," Narang said, referring to the vague promises of denuclearization from North Korea. "If it looks like Trump is the one walking away, then it looks like Kim wins."
If Kim leaves the summit saying Trump spoiled the deal, then the temperature on the Korean Peninsula goes up "astronomically," Narang said.
Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with knowledge of Trump's thinking on North Korea, recently told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that the worst-case scenario for the talks would be for the US and Pyongyang to "walk out of this thing angry at each other, with deflated expectations — and then there's no place left to go, there's no more diplomacy, because you've used your biggest card right up front."
If both parties exit the talks with no deal and no progress, Trump and Kim could easily find themselves going back to nuclear threats, but this time without the prospect of talks to keep them from the brink of military conflict.