A Trump-Kim Meeting — Fraught With Risk and Opportunity

Just over a year into a presidency already full of unusual precedents, President Trump has agreed to a North Korean offer, communicated through South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, to meet face to face with Kim Jong-un. Though such meetings have been bandied about in the past, no sitting U.S. president has ever met with a sitting North Korean Supreme Leader. It is a prospect fraught with risk and opportunity.

Kim reportedly made this offer along with a statement that North Korea is “committed to denuclearization.” He left ambiguous what he would want in return, though, according to Chung, it involves a commitment that South Korea and the United States “not repeat the mistakes of the past.” Given what Pyongyang has previously demanded, this likely refers to upholding our side of any bargain, and possibly an end to what they call America’s “hostile policy” (i.e., our alliance with South Korea, proximate U.S. military assets, joint military drills, and economic sanctions).

It is a bewildering and unexpected development. Just a few weeks ago, Kim and Trump were trading barbs about how stupid the other is and making explicit threats of nuclear aggression. Answers to a few preliminary questions are in order.

Was Trump right to say yes?

Yes, but we should proceed with caution. The dangerous cycle of taunts, threats, and ever-heightening tensions over the past several months risked inadvertent escalation. The Trump administration even publicly floated the idea of a so-called “bloody nose” attack, involving a surgical strike against North Korean targets in the hopes that they would back down in response. Essentially every informed assessment of the consequences of even this kind of minor use of force predicts catastrophic escalation and possibly nuclear war, with higher-end casualty estimates in the many millions of people and with no clear political win at the other end of the conflagration.

Agreeing to meet face to face with an adversary is, by its nature, the opposite of the bluster and threats of war that has been the rule in Trump’s first year. And therefore, a welcome development. The consensus among analysts is that any war would be calamitous. It is therefore hard to see how we had a choice here. Declining the offer would mean a return to confrontation and antagonism.

That said, we should not have high confidence that the Trump administration is prepared to actually handle serious face to face negotiations. This is not really how smart diplomacy is done. Typically, lower-level officials, including seasoned diplomats and technical experts, engage in private discussions for years, determining each side’s red lines, finding areas of compromise, and establishing arrangements for neutral verification and mediation protocols. Only after progress is made at this level would a meeting between heads of state be appropriate, constructive, and, crucially, safe for both sides.

Furthermore, Trump has consistently undermined the value of diplomacy and has hollowed out the State Department of the kind of diplomatic professionals needed now to meet this challenge. Trump has not even appointed an ambassador to South Korea yet. In fact, Trump unexpectedly withdrew an impending nomination for this post to Victor Cha after the latter told Trump preventive war against the North was a bad idea. This has made us terribly unprepared for such an unprecedented and unpredictable meeting.

Things could very easily unravel. And the consequences of failure could be extreme. As Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, “The worst possible thing you can do is meet with President Trump in person and try to play him. If you do that, it will be the end of you — and your regime.” Victor Cha writes today in the New York Times that “failure could also push the two countries to the brink of war.”

Trump may very well have a similar outlook.

Why did North Korea make this offer?

It is very hard to say. The strategic and tactical calculations of states are inherently opaque, particularly in extraordinary and rapidly developing situations like this. 

Many have argued that Kim has offered to meet because of the “maximum pressure” policy of the Trump administration – specifically the additional economic sanctions imposed on North Korea over the past year. But this is a wild oversimplification at best. The sanctions are surely weakening North Korea’s already ailing economy and tightening the screws on the regime, but the real key on sanctions was greater Chinese enforcement. Trump would be eager to take credit for Beijing’s slightly harder line against North Korea of late, but in reality, it has been a gradual process resulting from changing Chinese perceptions of their regional role and their increased frustration due to Pyongyang’s progress on nuclear and missile development over the past couple of years.

It is not inconceivable that Trump’s threats have scared Kim into offering direct talks. The North Korean regime may view Trump as unstable. The Washington Post reports that top North Korean officials have even read Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, a book about Trump’s chaotic first year in office that depicts the president as erratic, ignorant, and impulsive. Maybe Kim thought Trump was actually mad enough to unleash a war that is widely acknowledged to be too costly to contemplate. I am skeptical. It is just as likely that Kim understands Trump is a political novice who violated the parameters of debate in Washington, DC by suggesting during the campaign that South Korea assume responsibility for its own security. Maybe Kim thinks he can outsmart Trump or make a fool of him at the negotiating table.

Another possible explanation is that Pyongyang has leverage like it has never had before, and so now is as propitious a time as any to negotiate at the highest levels. The regime feels emboldened by the successful completion of their nuclear development, as they refer to it. Now they feel their nuclear deterrent is strong enough to meet with their greatest enemy on more equal footing.

It is even possible that Pyongyang sincerely believes direct talks are the best way to dial down tensions. Perhaps they really are willing to make concessions in return for reciprocal concessions from the United States. That is perhaps the most rational explanation for the regime’s motivations here.

However, the notion that North Korea is really ready to denuclearize is far-fetched, to say the least. They have devoted enormous resources, at great risk, to obtain their current capabilities. They won’t forfeit them without truly significant concessions from the United States.

Is it likely to succeed?

No. Despite his claims to be a world-class dealmaker, Trump is manifestly unprepared to engage such difficult negotiations. His mishandling of diplomatic engagements with other world leaders does not leave me with much confidence that he can prudently conduct himself in such high-stakes talks with an avowed enemy like Kim Jong-un.

Successful negotiations require a solid understanding of the interests of all the players, some measure of regional expertise, and technical knowledge of how to establish limitations and verification regimes of the nuclear program. It requires experienced diplomats and strategic clarity of the political goals driving all sides. What do we expect to get out of this meeting? What are some realistic expectations? What are we willing to concede? What do we expect Pyongyang is willing to give up? Finally, negotiating partners must have confidence that the other side will uphold its commitments under any agreement. This crucial element is not present in this case. Neither side trusts the other, and each has a long list of accusations that the other has cheated and reneged on past arrangements.

The initial announcement suggested this face to face meeting would take place by May. With so little time to prepare, and with such daunting obstacles, we do not have the ingredients for probable success. It is not clear what choice we had, however.