As President Donald Trump enthusiastically endorses a summit with someone he effectively threatened to kill just a few weeks ago, one imagines a man waving a piece of paper while declaring “peace in our time.”
In fact, the comparison between Trump’s plan to meet with Kim Jong-un and Britain’s Neville Chamberlain at Munich fails for the simple reason that North Korea does not seriously threaten the United States, other than in retaliation for an American military attack. Nazi Germany was the most industrialized and populous nation in the heart of Europe, while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is an economic and political wreck.
It’s pure fantasy to think that one meeting with America’s Dealmaker-in-Chief will resolve 73 years of confrontation and conflict on the Korean peninsula. The prospective summit between Trump and Kim does offer some hope of ending a crisis that threatens to result in war. But the path forward is strewn with landmines. Step on one, and the president could find himself back where he started—after being embarrassed, even humiliated, by a failed summit.
The president’s temperament is first among them. Is it possible the meeting might never take place?
The problems are many. Major summits usually follow detailed negotiations leading to a breakthrough. After Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in October 2000, there were attempts to arrange a meeting between Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, the current ruler’s father, and President Bill Clinton. It did not occur because there was not enough time for those doing the real work to hammer out an agreement before the heads of government met.
This administration is ill-equipped to do such preparatory work, and not just because of the calendar. The president has left numerous positions involving Korea policy unfilled. Ambassador Joseph Yun, an Obama holdover, left just recently. The administration dumped Victor Cha, a knowledgeable, if hawkish, Korea expert as nominee to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea because he rejected proposals to strike the North militarily. The White House apparently didn’t bother to keep the State Department abreast of news from the DPRK. So who’s going to do the advance work necessary to address one of the most complex and risky issues on the planet?
Certainly not President Trump. He knows little, resists being briefed, and is subject to manipulation. Indeed, the fact that Chinese and European officials so ostentatiously played to the president’s vanities—gave him a welcome fit for an emperor, convinced him their ideas are his and he has won—likely encouraged Kim to try his hand at the same game. If the president is going to resist the wiles of someone who so far has managed the opening with South Korea brilliantly, he is going to need aides well-versed in the issue and prepared with their own offers and counter-moves.
Moreover, Kim has yet to speak. Perhaps he really is prepared, as South Korean officials claim, to abandon nuclear weapons. After all, to repudiate Seoul after it has gone far out on the proverbial limb would sacrifice Pyongyang’s recent propaganda gains. However, Kim’s “agreement” to denuclearize is likely only in exchange for the kind of “security guarantees” Washington would be loath to offer, such as ending the alliance with South Korea and withdrawing U.S. troops.
Indeed, the two leaders almost certainly have different expectations for their meeting. President Trump’s reaction suggests he imagines himself bringing the DPRK’s nukes back onto Air Force One personally. Kim likely expects recognition from and respect by the U.S., and probably hopes for an end to threats of military action. As for denuclearization, for him that is conditional, based on Washington’s offer. And unless Pyongyang has dramatically changed its stance, denuclearization won’t come cheap, if at all.
Dropping sanctions certainly won’t be enough to win Kim’s assent. It might help to toss in diplomatic relations and a peace treaty, but America’s history of regime change, especially in Libya, which had negotiated away its nuclear and missile programs prior to being invaded—an action North Korean officials routinely reference—argues against accepting verbal assurances and paper guarantees. Why would Kim trust Trump, who repudiated his predecessor’s agreement with Iran, dismissed his secretary of state’s efforts to engage the DPRK, and threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against the North?
President Trump recently proclaimed his belief that Kim is “sincere,” though the former’s evidence for that position is unclear. A summit would provide Kim with an opportunity to adopt Hitler’s diplomatic strategy: demand ever more but never be satisfied. When I visited Pyongyang last June, officials told me they would consider yielding their nukes if the U.S., Russia, China, and other states were willing to dismantle theirs. Yes, they were committed to denuclearization—under conditions that would never occur. Kim might not be quite so obvious in dealing with the Trump administration, but he could appear reasonable even while thwarting the kind of agreement that President Trump probably expects to sign.
This clash of expectations could wreck the summit before it starts. If Washington demands evidence of an irreversible commitment to disarm, the North is unlikely to agree. No experienced negotiator would abandon his or her most important leverage before the talks begin. If the North says it is willing to denuclearize, but only in exchange for benefits and guarantees offered by America and its allies, then the president would be negotiating on terms that he rejected all last year. The North would look like the winner, especially if the meeting ended without an agreement. Given this possibility, the president would likely come under pressure from Republican hawks to stay home.
Which would be unfortunate. At its best the summit could significantly change regional dynamics. If North Korea abandoned its nuclear weapons program, why should the U.S. maintain a garrison in the South? The Republic of Korea is able to defend itself. And if détente blooms in Washington and Pyongyang, then why not in Seoul and Pyongyang as well? Beijing might be willing to offer greater assistance and guarantees with the knowledge that the U.S. would not attempt to use the Korean Peninsula as part of America’s ill-concealed campaign of containment.
But it’s clearly better to have both leaders talking rather than threatening each other. The acrimonious, militaristic atmosphere would dissipate, at least for a short time. And to the extent the North appeared reasonable and forthcoming, it would be harder for Washington to again threaten military action. It would be almost impossible to win an agreement for war from the ROK, and outside pressure against risking a Second Korean War would be strong.
Nevertheless, if President Trump enters into talks with unreasonable expectations and leaves feeling betrayed, he might be more inclined to take military action, irrespective of what anyone else thinks. After all, how could he allow a regime like North Korea to “win”? To avoid such a response would require him to exhibit a heretofore unrecognized seriousness of character.
Strategy toward the Koreas has been a wild ride of late. It isn’t clear whether President Trump or Supreme Leader Kim has been more irresponsible. The prospect of a summit between the two has only increased the drama. The results might be positive, but much could also go wrong. Most importantly, though, the possibility of war seems to have been moved back at least until May. That alone is cause for celebration.