The upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is, without question, a good thing. Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war, as Churchill said, and, until now, Trump seemed headed toward war.
But beyond this quite significant fact, expectations should be kept low.
One problem is that the two leaders are going into the meeting with conflicting premises. Trump thinks Kim is caving to the pressure of U.S. sanctions and threats. Kim thinks Trump is caving to the reality of North Korean nukes. Both men are probably right, to some degree. But it’s hard to see how these talks can produce a lasting peace if both leaders think they have the upper hand at the outset—and, therefore, think any deal must be struck on their terms.
That’s the other problem: Their terms—their definitions of a successful deal—are also in conflict.
Kim wants to be recognized as a world leader, a peer who can deter attacks on his homeland, and that means being a leader with a nuclear arsenal. Trump wants Kim to dismantle that arsenal.
Kim has already won half of the contest by getting the president of the United States to agree to meet him in the first place. To a degree that Trump may not realize, that in itself bestows upon Kim an international recognition and legitimacy that his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather Kim Il-Sung both tried, but failed, to attain for decades.
This doesn’t mean Trump should have declined the offer. But now that the game is on, he has to train for it. Most presidents, faced with this risk and opportunity, would have their staffs spend the next two months preparing the best briefing book ever written. They would invite to the White House, for one-on-one chats or group seminars, every diplomat who has ever negotiated with North Koreans, the best historians who have chronicled U.S.–North Korean relations, the best regional specialists who have parsed the lessons to be learned from past talks.
Already the problem should be clear. Trump doesn’t read briefing books or books of any sort. Most of the diplomats who sat down with North Koreans did so under Democratic presidents named Clinton and Obama, who are all—the presidents and their diplomats—barred from this White House.
Even if they weren’t barred, Trump generally thinks that he has nothing to learn from history. As far as he’s concerned, his predecessors failed, so he has nothing to learn from their experiences. No one thought his “fire and fury” threats would produce results, and now look what’s happening. Trump’s refrain all along has been that he alone can do the things he sets out to do, and in his mind, the very fact of this summit probably affirms this belief.
And again, to some degree, Trump’s bellicosity probably did bring Kim to the table—but only to a degree. It’s worth noting that after Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks of last August, Kim tested three short-range ballistic missiles, fired two medium-range missiles over Japan, test launched an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting U.S. territory, and exploded a hydrogen bomb.
One could argue, in other words, that Trump’s growing bellicosity accelerated Kim’s quest to acquire a nuclear arsenal—to claim the status of a nuclear state—and that Kim unleashed his “charm offensive” only after the quest had been fulfilled. So let’s give both leaders “credit” for coming to this moment, even if they’re unlikely to grant it to each other.
In one sense, Trump and Kim might be on the right track in bypassing the dozens of low-level meetings that usually take place before the leaders meet and, instead, leaping straight to the summit. The 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s plutonium program for nearly a decade, was jump-started when Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang in an effort to lower tensions. Carter and Kim Il-Sung drew up the outlines of what became the Agreed Framework, with no permission, and plenty of initial suspicion, from Clinton.
Toward the end of Clinton’s term in office, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her staff spent long hours with Kim Jong-il (by then, Kim Il-Sung had died) hammering out an accord to ban North Korea from developing ballistic missile technology. Those who sat in on the talks later described Kim as very active and knowledgeable. The two sides came very close to producing a deal. Kim wanted Clinton to come wrap up the final details in person. Clinton chose instead to spend his last weeks in office trying to strike a Middle East peace accord, which went nowhere. George W. Bush’s incoming secretary of state, Colin Powell, publicly said he would resume those talks where Clinton left off—only to be upbraided by Bush himself and forced to renounce his interest.
But here’s the difference between then and now. Before their meetings with the two previous Kims, Carter and Albright immersed themselves in the issues. More important still, they had an agenda. I suspect that the current Kim and his foreign ministry also have a very clear agenda; after all, they’ve been waiting for this moment, in Kim’s case for years, in the ministry’s for decades. There is absolutely no sign that Trump has any agenda, other than the vague desire to “denuke” North Korea with no plan for how to get from here to there. In other words, on this score too, Trump will likely come to the meeting at a disadvantage.
And while Trump may be sitting down with Kim face-to-face, he is not the only player in the overall game. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is another big winner in the contest so far. Moon is the one who engineered this moment, from the Olympics on. Moon and his Democratic Party have long been committed to a policy of “engagement” with North Korea. Kim’s nuclear tests strained this policy, while Trump’s belligerent rhetoric raised the specter of war to levels unseen in decades. The prospect of a summit in May—of talks between the North Korean leader and an American president for the first time ever—calms this fervor and allows for the re-emergence of engagement. But Moon regards himself as more than a mere observer of this new landscape. He is likely to meet with Kim before Trump does, and he may set the agenda—especially because the Americans don’t have one and the American president doesn’t seem to think he needs one.
Meanwhile, if Trump wants this meeting to accomplish anything of value, he needs to do the following:
First, appoint an envoy to South Korea. (It is amazing that, more than a year into his term, he has yet to do this.)
Second, have his staff bring in the experts on Korea. Swallow hard if this means letting in the occasional Democrat.
Third (and this is a directive more for Trump’s advisers), do not let this meeting take place in Pyongyang. Kim would put on the most extravagant show in the history of the world, and Trump would be so impressed by the welcome that he’d likely embrace the “Hermit King” as his new best friend and concede who knows what at the bargaining table. The meeting should be held in the most boring neutral city in the world.
Fourth (a related point), Trump should not be allowed to meet with Kim all alone. At least one senior aide should be in the room along with a note taker and a State Department translator.
Fifth, the National Security Council should draw up a list of goals—three things, say, that Trump should try to get from this meeting, three things that he’d be willing to offer in exchange for a true pledge to freeze or dismantle the nukes, and three things that the North Koreans are likely to push for but that Trump should reject at all cost.
The NSC should also lay out a road map of where this relationship goes next, tempering expectations for the ultimate deal. I suspect that, just as Trump thought that his very presence in the Oval Office would make America great again, he also thinks his single summit with Kim will unleash a new era of peace, security, and a nuclear-free peninsula. It is hard for even Trump’s closest advisers to disabuse him of anything, but they really need to try hard on this one.
Finally, Trump needs to visit President Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe before and after this trip—and Trump’s aides need to brief their counterparts on everything Trump and Kim discuss—in order to assure them that, whatever comes out of this improbable summit, their security interests aren’t being compromised. The leaders of China, Russia, the European Union, and the U.N. Security Council will also have to be brought in somehow, as they will play a role in enforcing whatever comes of it—or, if nothing comes of it, Trump needs to explain why, so they don’t abandon the existing sanctions.
This is a potentially exciting moment and a perilous one too. Kim understands that it’s both. The question is whether Trump does and whether he can bring himself to do what needs to be done—before, during, and after the event—to keep it from being a mere spectacle and ego trip.
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