Last night’s headlines about President Trump’s accepting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s invitation to a summit — to take place as early as May — were rattling, to say the least. As New York Times writer Peter Baker points out, this decision is a “supremely self-confident” approach on the part of both President Trump and Kim. After a series of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, the atrocious death of North Korea–detained University of Virgina student Otto Warmbier, and Pyongyang’s cyber-hacking exploits, to say that summit diplomacy is premature is a gross understatement. We clearly have lightheartedly skedaddled over a few of the critical stepping stones prerequisite to two heads of such polar-opposite states meeting for the first time. Summit diplomacy requires careful planning and preparation, but it appears this decision was made in the blink of an eye.
There are two key words to keep in mind as we try to grasp the state of play: scale and bind.
An unbalanced, teetering scale captures the inconsistent and tenuous approach taken by the U.S., South Korea, and the international community toward North Korea. Washington has strongly advocated and applied sanctions on the DPRK, even going so far as to consider an all-out military confrontation with Pyongyang. And now we’ve abruptly tipped the scale by agreeing to a sit-down-across-the-table meeting with an adversary who just last month lashed out at the Trump administration for criticizing Pyongyang’s human-rights record on the world stage during the Pyeongchang olympics. Seoul — with the highest stakes in this game — seesaws between a hardline approach and engagement each time the political tides turn with a new presidential administration. Meanwhile, North Korea methodically plans and maps out its long-term game sequence, consistent with its own rules. For Kim, a summit meeting with President Trump will help elevate his status and legitimize North Korea’s identity; Washington’s immediate acceptance of Pyongyang’s invitation only serves to validate this goal.
That we have decided to altogether skip the lower-level talks necessary for a presidential summit also puts the scale off-kilter. Indeed, to accept Kim’s invitation to a meeting without conditions is a break from our history of pursuing a phased, progression-based diplomacy with the stance that if “things work out” well for Washington, perhaps a breakthrough in relations could be achieved. But this on-the-spot agreement to meet Kim lends credibility to the perception that top-level decisions on touchy policy topics are being made hastily. How then does our credibility hold?
Momentous as it may be, the U.S.–DPRK summit actually places Washington in a bind to choose a course of action after meeting with Pyongyang. The clock will start ticking for the U.S. to slide something across the table to North Korea in exchange for or following Pyongyang’s altered behavior. The odds of making a rational, feasible policy choice diminish under such time pressure. I’d venture to say that this will work in the North’s favor — in some loosening of the U.S. or international chokehold on the regime.
In South Korean national-security adviser Chung Eui-yong’s statement to the press at the White House, note that he says only that Kim expresses the will to denuclearize and, moving forward, will refrain from — not absolutely stop — any nuclear or missile tests. If the past is any indication, Pyongyang’s will can change upon little notice. A promise to refrain from doing something may result in temporarily curbed behavior; but once the temporary stay is removed, the built-up pressure often results in greater destruction. In response, our actions should be just as tentative and conditional, lest we find ourselves marching to the North’s tune down the path of concessions.
As the U.S., South Korea, and other stakeholders deliberate over the next steps to take in dealing with North Korea, consider Pyongyang’s motivations for the recent about-face. Consider that Kim sent his pregnant younger sister to Seoul as part of his charm offensive, his eagerness to welcome the South Korean delegation to Pyongyang, and that this recent invitation to President Trump could all be indicators of internal instability and deteriorating conditions in North Korea — in short, these actions could be a reflection of Kim’s desperate state.
With the Trump–Kim summit just two months away, there is much work to be done. But it’s not too late to tip the scales toward a more equitable, measured handling of North Korea, lest we find ourselves in Pyongyang’s stifling bind.