I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
Flashforward to present
The White House didn’t make the announcement. It was made by the South Korean envoys on the White House driveway (this Administration really can’t do PR right). But everyone agrees (for a change) on one thing — it is potentially historic:
WASHINGTON — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has invited President Trump to meet for negotiations over its nuclear program, an audacious diplomatic overture that would bring together two strong-willed, idiosyncratic leaders who have traded threats of war.
The White House said that Mr. Trump had accepted the invitation, and Chung Eui-yong, a South Korean official who conveyed it, told reporters that the president would meet with Mr. Kim within two months.
“He expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible,” Mr. Chung said at the White House on Thursday evening after meeting the president. Mr. Trump, he said, agreed to “meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.”
The president expressed his optimism about the meeting in a post on Twitter, saying that Mr. Kim had “talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze.”
“Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time,” Mr. Trump added. “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”
Most see this as a breathtaking gamble. No sitting American president has ever met a North Korean leader, and Mr. Trump himself has repeatedly vowed that he would not commit the error of his predecessors by being drawn into a protracted negotiation in which North Korea extracted concessions from the United States but held on to key elements of its nuclear program.
The highest-level American official to meet with a North Korean leader was Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who visited Pyongyang in 2000, near the end of the Clinton administration. Dr. Albright had planned to arrange a visit by President Bill Clinton.
But it fell apart when Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, would not agree to a missile deal in advance; he wanted to negotiate it face-to-face with the president. Mr. Clinton decided not to take the risk, skipped the trip, and used his last weeks in office to make a race for Middle East peace instead.
The immediate response falls to how much faith you have in Trump to not cause an international incident.
Those who see Trump as some kind of messiah are dancing around and praising Trump for bringing world peace.
But the rest of us are considering Trump’s long, detailed history of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and completely offending somebody, in the process. He is uninformed and we don’t have a diplomatic corps to bring him up to speed. Seriously though — who would be advising Trump? Our ambassador to South Korea just resigned. Tillerson is persona non grata (he was out of the loop on the whole thing yesterday), McMaster is on his way out, and Jared doesn’t have clearance OR expertise. Although, Trump eschews experts anyway, so perhaps it matters little. And that’s what makes many nervous.
Voice of America published an interesting analytical piece detailing the problems facing the US in dealing with the DPRK. Specifically, the US’s dearth of expertise.
Aaron David Miller, a senior analyst at the Wilson Center, has advised a number of Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.
Miller told VOA he believes if this recent offer of direct talks does represent a transformative change in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s position, then it is too valuable an opportunity to waste, and the U.S. should test it — first through discreet dialogue before any structured negotiations take place.
Asked who in the Trump administration could prepare and conduct sensitive, complicated and grueling direct talks with North Korea, Miller drew a blank.
“Right now, it is hard to identify any single individual or team of individuals that has both the negotiating experience and knowledge of the history, the cultural and political sensitivity, and knowledge of how the North Koreans behave and how they see the world,” he said.
He added: “In this republic, you might have to reach for people who have had experience and who are part of another administration. This administration may not be willing to do that.”
Miller said if this offer of talks becomes serious, it would mean months, if not years, of negotiations. He said the president has created some “running room” for diplomacy, and that all sides are in a better position than they were before.
Perhaps, but the mere agreement to meet with Kim is a diplomatic failure, in my view. Most presidents would refuse to make a deal with North Korea while it holds three American prisoners. President Trump has handed the North Koreans that greatest propaganda coup in their history by elevating their status. Trump is giving Kim Jong-Un exactly what North Korea has always wanted—a meeting as equals with few or no preconditions. Following on the heels of North Korea being feted at the Winter Olympics, complete with round-the-world broadcasts of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong looming above Mike Pence, Trump’s agreement completes not just the normalization of North Korea, but the elevation of the rogue state to major player on the world stage.
And what exactly will happen when they meet?
The president’s deal-making skills, one of his aides said on Thursday, could produce an outcome different from previous rounds of diplomacy, which have always ended in failure and disappointment.
Most of the president’s business deals have also ended up in failure. So has his presidential attempts at negotiation (how’s that gun control bill coming?) He gets very easily rolled, as we have seen many times.
What is odd is that we have two people who deal BADLY. In Trump we have a guy that makes an agreement on DACA or guns and then backs away from it within hours. Kim knows this. And Kim’s word isn’t any more reliable. He really has no incentive to give up his nukes and every reason to keep producing them. After all, he has gotten Trump’s attention by having them.
In the end, we may get some prisoners, but any serious talks would take months to negotiate, and Trump/Kim are not going to do that. Even if they agree on broad outlines, they negotiations are likely to break down when it comes to working out the deets. In the end, it will just be one big PR thing, which works to the benefit of Kim more than Trump. Suzanne DiMaggio, who has been leading unofficial talks between the United States and North Korea, agrees:
Let’s hope “more spectacle than substance” is the worst possible outcome.
There are not many ways this one ends well. pic.twitter.com/xvlqFBmf8l
— Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) March 9, 2018
Before thinking about all the ways this summit could go wrong, the president’s critics owe it to him to try and consider the few ways it could go right. At the least, this decision forestalls war for the moment. Another day of peace on the Korean peninsula is a worthy goal and a far better approach than the childish taunts that have characterized the president’s approach so far.
Denuclearization is almost certain to fall off the table quickly, but one positive outcome would be if North Korea tries a bait-and-switch, in which they backtrack from denuclearization but agree to halt, indefinitely, all testing and production of an ICBM in exchange for sanctions relief. If the president manages even this much, his gamble might pay off, at least for a while.
Most likely, however, is that the White House is about to walk right into a trap the North Koreans have been laying for American presidents since the 1990s. A one-on-one summit between a U.S. president and one of the world’s weirdest and most irresponsible leaders would be a huge reward for a regime that has long chided other rogues and dictators for their weakness in dealing with the United States. (When Moammar Gadhafi of Libya was torn to pieces by his own people after NATO weakened his army, Kim taunted the world by noting that Gadhafi should have kept his nuclear program.)
Such a meeting would legitimize not only Kim’s regime, but his methods. No matter how the White House spins it, the North Koreans will claim a huge victory in getting Trump to bend to their will.
This isn’t to say that direct meetings are not a good idea. Sanctions are biting deeply in North Korea, and China is clearly fed up with its bizarre ally. But a summit should be a reward for months, even years, of careful work and actual progress. Meetings at lower levels should progress to more senior principals, and then to the heads of state.
Instead, we have yet another decision, much like the recent and incoherent announcement of tariffs, that looks like sheer impulse from a commander-in-chief who seems frustrated that his advisers keep telling him that nuclear diplomacy is more complicated than running a hotel or a golf course.
Worse yet, the short fuse for a meeting in May — and why the hurry?— means that this will be a summit without an agenda and with no time to devise one, which always increases the chances of a diplomatic train wreck. There is no evidence that this move was given any kind of serious analysis by military or diplomatic advisers. The Pentagon seems to be in the dark, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear just hours before the announcement that no such meeting was even on the horizon.
Given North Korea’s track record, here is what is more likely to happen. Kim and Trump will meet, and Kim’s regime will reap hours of footage of an American president shaking the hand of the Supreme Leader that will run forever in North Korea and go viral around the world. Kim will play the gracious host, and agree to everything, knowing that this kind of flattery will trigger a torrent of praise from Trump and perhaps even elicit reckless talk about lifting sanctions. (The North Koreans will surely have done their homework on the president’s psyche, which is on display all day, every day, on social media.)
After the summit, Pyongyang will then dig in on further talks. When those talks fail, Kim will blame Trump, leaving the president bewildered and angry. Trump will go back to his insulting ways, which will pave the way for Kim to exit any preliminary agreements. The whole business will fall apart, and North Korea will look like the sure winner: the co-equal of a United States president who has been humbled in front of America’s allies and embarrassed in front of its enemies. The unveiling of a functional, nuclear-armed North Korean ICBM will follow.
I hope I’m wrong. Talking to the North Koreans is certainly a far better idea than war. Trump and Kim could surprise us all and begin the process of removing nuclear weapons from North Korea. But it’s far too early to think about any calls to Oslo just yet.
Pretty much what I said.