Earlier this month, the president surprised his senior advisers and the world by agreeing to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “sometime in May.” As of this writing, the details have yet to be worked out, and the details are important. There is no word yet on where or when they will meet and no word on an agenda. Clearly these issues can be worked out, but for such a momentous meeting, planning already should be well underway in order to make it a meaningful meeting.
There are pluses and minuses to this gambit, as with many international affairs of state. Mr. Trump is taking a huge gamble. It could be argued that no approach to stopping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons has worked over the past twenty-five years or more. Certainly, talking is better than fighting, which seemed to be the president’s preferred option right up until it wasn’t. Maybe it will work. However, if history is any guide, it will not. It will especially not work in getting Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
South Korean envoys met with Mr. Kim and members of his regime following the Winter Olympics. This is a huge diplomatic break-through and is significant in trying to reach accommodation on the status of the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Kim had never met with any South Korean delegation, ever. The talks were described as very productive and resulted in some concrete developments. Among them were the opening of a hot-line between Mr. Kim and South Korea’s president Mr. Moon Jae In. Mr. Kim also proposed talks with the United States on denuclearization, and indicated he would suspend nuclear and missile tests before and during any talks. Significantly, he dropped one of his long-standing demands that the United States and South Korea must stop large-scale joint military exercises. In fact, he professed an understanding that the annual joint exercises must proceed this spring. Additionally, he agreed to an April summit with Mr. Moon and chose the “Peace House”, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, as the location of the talks.
All of these developments are significant measures of progress and form the background to the meeting that took place in the White House. After briefing their president, the South Korean envoys flew to Washington to brief their American allies, including a closely held invitation from Mr. Kim to Mr. Trump for a meeting. All involved — North Koreans, South Koreans, U.S. National Security aides — thought that research, debate and analysis would take place before a response would be proffered. Instead, Mr. Trump crashed the meeting between U.S. and South Korean officials (Mr. Trump was scheduled to meet with them the next day) and within a few minutes of a mention of the proposed summit, he accepted it. Mr. Trump caused some consternation as he then hinted at the upcoming announcement himself with an unusual visit to the White House press room, even before Mr. Kim and other important allies in the region, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been informed of the decision. Indeed, it still is unclear whether Mr. Kim actually acknowledges Mr. Trump’s response.
What could go wrong?
Right off the bat, Mr. Trump gave Mr. Kim the biggest international diplomatic success of his regime. Mr. Kim — and his father and grandfather before him — struggled mightily to be seen as serious players in their own right and of equal stature to all major powers in the world. Now Mr. Kim will meet the President of the United States on co-equal terms. He attained his biggest goal with no concessions on his part. Perhaps this development is worth the price of admission, but it is a huge gamble as it emboldens Mr. Kim and further buffs up his supreme confidence in his own abilities and instincts.
While we think that the North Koreans are coming to the table because of the increased sanctions and Mr. Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, Mr. Kim is thinking that Mr. Trump is coming to the table because we need to deal with them as a nuclear power. The two views of these vastly different countries are about 180 degrees out of synch due to cultural, regional and political reasons. There is a high probability of miscalculation and misunderstanding on both sides.
On the U.S. side we will be conferring with one hand tied behind our back. There is no U.S. Ambassador in South Korea, no Assistant Secretary of East Asians Affairs in the State Department and the top North Korean expert resigned (many of the other policy analysts and subject matter expert offices are also empty) and we have no Secretary of State. It is unclear whether the Senate can (or will) confirm Mr. Mike Pompeo, the proposed nominee to take Mr. Tillerson’s place, before a meeting in May. Additionally, rumors are rife that the current National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster will depart shortly.
(Intermission: What is up with the way Mr. Trump treats his senior advisers? Is he afraid to confront individuals he wants to remove from service or does he relish humiliating them? Does “winning” mean one has to debase, humiliate and bully people? Let’s just name a few: FBI Director James Comey found out he was fired via cable news; Chief of Staff Reince Priebus learned he was fired via Twitter as he was getting off of Air Force One where he was just with the president; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired via Twitter as he returned from a diplomatic tour of Africa; and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe found out he was fired via an email three minutes before it broke on cable news. I must have missed finding out about this leadership technique in my many years of service to the nation.)
To Mr. Kim, having nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile program got him the recognition that he craved. Additionally, as I have written in this space before, he takes a look at what happened to his former dictator colleagues Gaddafi and Saddam when they gave up their programs developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and I think it naive at best to think that any negotiation will entice him to give his up now. At best, we may get him to freeze further testing, but without knowing exactly how far along his program may be, it might be too late for a freeze to deter him from using his weapons at some point in the future.
And then there is the terminology. Given the cultural differences and mightily different world views, what exactly does “denuclearization” — the administration’s goal for the Korean peninsula — mean, anyway? For us, it is Mr. Kim giving up all of his nuclear weapons, with verifiable inspections and international monitoring to ensure they are gone to stay. To Mr. Kim, at least from past negotiations, it means that the U.S. pulls its military from the Korean peninsula. Which of course, is, or at least should be, a total non-starter for us and our Asian allies. There are other similar areas of concern where words matter but have not, and possible will not, be resolved before the meeting takes place. It is difficult to meet common ground if both sides have different ideas of what is being talked about.
Take another look at the lack of experienced personnel to lead this effort. Compare that to years of negotiations by the North Koreans with the U.S. and other nations. They are reported to be among the toughest negotiators in the world, and even when the West thinks they’ve reached an accord, they are surprised to find that the North Koreans proclaim the opposite and/or quickly break the promises from their side. In every meeting over many years, their negotiators amply demonstrated that they are tenacious, persistent, and determined. They will do everything possible to unwind sanctions and to achieve their goals without making any meaningful concessions.
There is a reason so little progress has occurred over many administrations, Democrat or Republican.
Other area experts worry that we are starting at the top rather than at the bottom. The argument goes that a summit should be the culmination of negotiations rather than the start. As outlined above, the devil is in the details and national leaders are rarely called upon to negotiate specific, very technical aspects of treaties. Their job is to set the tone and resolve any last minute sticking points, not to start from scratch. Given the personalities of the two leaders involved, there is a lot that could go wrong (“Lil’ Rocket Man” vs. “Mentally Deranged Dotard”), should the talks ever actually take place.
Two possible outcomes — one relatively positive and one very negative — could result from these talks. The mostly positive outcome is that no specific agreements come from the summit, but that the meeting of the two leaders “jump starts” meaningful talks that lead to progress. We should be prepared for incremental progress, perhaps starting with an actual peace treaty between the warring factions of the Korean War rather than the continuing armistice. (Many people forget that we are technically still at war on the Korean peninsula.)
The negative outcome could be that both sides see no progress and the two leaders assess the other as “weak” or unwilling to break an impasse. In this scenario, one or both sides could decide that they gave peace a chance, it didn’t work, and the only remaining option is combat — either a renewal of the Korean War, or more likely, a series of aggressive actions, probes, and tests of military resolve that could quickly escalate out of hand.
Big risks sometimes have big rewards. I would feel better about the risk in this case if I believed that Mr. Trump truly understood the situation and had actually calculated the pros and cons of this unprecedented adventure. This gambit has the feel of a game show gamble.