Direct talks between America’s and North Korea’s heads of state have never been tried, and nothing else has worked.
The good news is that the Trump administration has adopted an approach toward North Korea that goes beyond trading insults, or missiles. They are going to talk.
The bad news? Donald Trump intends to do it himself.
“I’m elated and horrified at the same time,” said Jim Walsh, a senior research associate at the MIT Security Studies Program and a board member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “Elated because the parties are talking; horrified by the prospect of the two most unusual leaders in the world together in a room—what could possibly go wrong?”
Since there is no acceptable way to force Kim Jung Un into dropping his pursuit of a nuclear ICBM, talks are the least of our bad options. It moves us one step back from a shooting war. As I wrote in The Atlantic last summer, like it or not, acceptance, containment, and negotiation is the only sensible way to proceed.
So, why not have Trump and Kim meet? Direct talks between America’s and North Korea’s heads of state have never been tried, and nothing else has worked. A summit might be a good idea because it is unprecedented.
“My first reaction is: What is this meeting?” said John Plumb, a Navy submarine officer who served as a director of defense policy for the National Security Council under President Obama. “Because I can imagine a version of this meeting where everybody looks good by having a presidential-type meeting, and it doesn’t actually lead anywhere. You can see Kim Jung Un getting recognition on a world stage here, kind of a normalized head of state, Trump getting recognition for taking steps that haven’t been tried before and his willingness to throw himself into it, and if it doesn’t lead anywhere, frankly I think our president has himself pretty well covered ... because nobody really expects it to. That’s a meeting for appearances’ sake, and I don’t know how much value that has. But … why the hell not?”
Two creative leaders, unfettered by traditional policy constraints … anything can happen. They might produce an important breakthrough. What comes to mind is the famous Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev “Walk in the Woods” at Reykjavik in 1986, which led to a disarmament agreement, very nearly a sweeping one. And there’s always the possibility that Kim might have miraculously grown a conscience at age 34, and is ready to disarm in return for a new Trump tower in Pyongyang. Whatever the outcome, Trump has painted such a frightening prospect of what he has called “Phase Two,” a military strike, that even a bad deal might look pretty good. But negotiating any deal, even a bad one, requires a measure of sophistication and talent. In this, Kim has the edge.
He is a cruel dictator and a dangerous man bent on perpetuating his dynasty and bringing all of Korea under its rule. Toward that end Kim is nothing if not consistent and calculating. He has long sought the kind of legitimacy a summit with the president of the United States would afford, and this most recent (hastily accepted) invitation is part of a carefully-orchestrated thaw that has been rolling out for months. It’s part of Pyongyang’s plan. Indeed, Trump’s willingness to meet with Kim underscores the value of his nuclear missiles—no president was willing to meet with him before he had them. The young tyrant is backed by experienced cadres of specialists for whom nuclear gamesmanship and Korean Peninsula politics are everything.
Trump may have fantasies of being a ruler like Kim, but he is not. In most matters—and certainly those pertaining to Korea—he is his opposite. He is no policy expert, and he has driven out or failed to appoint specialists to advise him. He disdains expertise and experience as a matter of rule, preferring to make great decisions by instinct—his faith in his gut is wider than his considerable waist. He is driven first and foremost by self-promotion, his degree of calculation is tweet deep; and he has set himself up—“I alone can fix this!”—to be a sucker for the grandstand play. He craves spectacle.
Hence his eagerness for this summit. The White House Thursday, when plans for it were announced, fairly bubbled with his enthusiasm. As if appearing in a promo on one of his favorite TV channels, Trump himself popped into the daily news briefing to tell reporters to watch for the announcement from Seoul. He was soon tweeting his excitement, as if the announcement itself was a victory. This is apparently Trump’s view, echoed by his chorus of flatterers. It goes like this: Cowed by the president’s bold threats of raining “fire and fury,” battered by fortified UN sanctions, Kim has bowed before a U.S. president who is more than his match. The offer from Pyongyang is not just an overture, it’s a capitulation. Trump has begun tweeting happily in anticipation, pointing to Kim’s lack of preconditions and purported willingness to discuss “denuclearization” of the peninsula.
Such meetings between leaders of powerful nations are serious business with real consequences for millions. There’s a reason why they are normally held only after months or even years of tough, detailed negotiations. The president ordinarily arrives as the closer. But there will be little time for any such preparation before a Trump-Kim summit, now tentatively booked for May. And, as Scott Snyder of the Council of Foreign Relations told me, “Trump had already put all of his cards on the table for everyone to see.”
Kim, on the other hand, has been careful not to define what he wants from this meeting. Absent the miraculous change of heart described above, Kim is not going to give up his nuclear arsenal, nor is he likely to abandon his missile program—or submit to the kind of free inspections needed to ensure that he has done so (North Korea has famously cheated on such agreements in the past). The standoff between Washington and Pyongyang is long one. It has now spanned nine American presidencies and three generations of Kims. It is not about to crumble before Trump’s menace or charm.
The downside to such a summit is all too real. If it fails to produce a breakthrough, where does the game go from here? It could well lead to ramped up threats and heightened chances for a calamitous war. The spectacle of the summit weights it with dangerous significance.A failed summit might provide further excuse for military action—we tried talking; it didn’t work.
We will probably be hearing a lot about parallels with the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in the coming weeks, but it’s a stretch. Reagan was no policy expert, but he was a man of steady principle, schooled in negotiation—he was a past president of The Screen Actors Guild. Gorbachev was an apparatchik, deeply experienced in policy and governance, and a man of conscience. Neither Trump nor Kim compare. This summit might be more aptly compared to the 2007 WrestleMania event where where Trump “faced off” against wrestling promoter Vince McMahon. At least in that bout they employed surrogates. Trump declared victory, of course.
He claims to be a master dealmaker, although his trail of business bankruptcies, betrayals, about-faces, and broken deals show precious little evidence of it. This meeting would give him a big chance on an international stage, performing on a high wire with no net. But expect more showmanship than brinkmanship. The fact that Trump is going with such transparent eagerness for a deal seems (to my conventional eyes) a poor opening gambit.
One thing is certain. Whatever the outcome, Trump will proclaim not just victory, but a huge, historic one. I just hope it’s one that we, and South Korea, can live with.