If President Trump indeed conceives of his presidency as a reality-TV show, he pulled off his greatest cliff-hanging plot device yet with his quick agreement to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
This is stunning improvisatory diplomacy and also, we believe, a very bad idea. North Korean leaders have long sought summits with American presidents as the ultimate means of international legitimacy. And what has Kim done to deserve this honor? Over the last nine months or so, he murdered Otto Warmbier, threatened Guam, and launched multiple missile tests, including two that flew over Japan.
Kim reached out for a meeting with Trump via South Korean intermediaries with hazy assurances he is willing to discuss denuclearization. The gambit may reflect the squeeze Pyongyang is feeling from sanctions that the Trump administration has, to its credit, steadily ratcheted up. But it is also straight from the regime’s playbook. Its pattern over the decades has been to buy time and get relief from sanctions, while continuing to pursue its core strategic goal of developing nuclear weapons and an advanced missile capability.
The North may believe that Trump is an easy mark for the latest iteration of this approach. The president is not given to extensive preparation or attention to detail, and his recent White House meetings on immigration and guns demonstrate a negotiator who is eager to tell his interlocutors what they want to hear, even if it is counter to his administration’s policy. Trump will be under pressure from South Korea and from his State Department to be conciliatory, and the temptation to get an agreement, any agreement, to wave around as an against-the-odds diplomatic achievement will be considerable.
If such a meeting comes off — and there is still some significant chance that it won’t — the U.S. will have to be carefully prepared. It will have to resist playing by North Korea’s rules in terms of venue and parameters, be willing to bring up items that are a surprise to the North Korean side, and be ready to declare the negotiations a failure without notice, accompanied by new punitive measures. And do all this while engaging in alliance maintenance, knowing that the North desperately wants to split us from the South.
This, in short, is an extraordinarily taxing diplomatic task, with very little upside. The chances of the North’s being willing to give up its nuclear weapons in a verifiable manner are extremely slim. The best case may be that Trump demonstrates that he is willing to talk, yet gets nowhere, building the case for even sterner measures to pressure and isolate the regime. It is encouraging that the administration says its policy of maximum pressure remains in place — so at least it is not repeating George W. Bush’s mistake of preemptive concessions — but it would be even better if it were thinking of a way out of the commitment to a meeting.
The North Korean regime isn’t to be underestimated. It has been playing this game for decades as if its existence depends on it — because it does.