This is stunning: President Trump has accepted an invitation from Kim Jong-un for a summit. It’s also a dangerous gamble and a bad idea.
I can’t believe I’m saying that. For many years, over several trips to North Korea, I’ve argued for direct talks between the United States and North Korea, and it’s certainly better to be engaging the North than bombing it. If the choice is talk versus missiles, I’ll go with the talk.
But the proper way to hold a summit is with careful preparation to make sure that the meeting advances peace – and certainly that it serves some purpose higher than simply legitimising Kim’s regime.
Kim and Trump are both showmen with a flair for the dramatic and unexpected. That would make a summit thrilling – but creates great risks if everything turns out wrong.
What North Korean leaders have craved for many years is international respect and credibility; they want to be treated as equals by the Americans, so a scene of Trump and Kim standing side by side would constitute a triumph for Pyongyang.
The North Koreans have long sought direct relations with senior American officials. In the past, they sometimes achieved this by bringing in Americans [such as Bill Clinton after he left office] as a condition for freeing American citizens whom they had detained.
So a visit by a sitting American president to North Korea would be a huge gift to Kim, and it’s puzzling that our Great Dealmaker should give up so much right off the bat.
It’s just plain dizzying for Trump to go from threatening in September to “totally destroy” North Korea, and later saying that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim’s, to planning a cosy summit meeting.
The more normal procedure would be, first, to negotiate our way toward the summit and make sure that we extract every possible concession, and, second, make sure that the summit serves the larger goals of resolving the nuclear crisis.
Sherpas from each side will be preparing for the summit in the next few months to work out deliverables, but by committing to make the trip by May, Trump has given up leverage and bargaining power. He’s going, which is something the North Koreans enormously want.
Frankly, another concern about a Trump-Kim summit is that our president will impetuously agree to some harebrained scheme to get a deal …
Withdraw US troops from South Korea and from Okinawa? No problem, if you build a wall for me”
Trump has sometimes leapt into commitments in Washington meetings, only to have aides later explain that he didn’t mean what he said, but it would be far more problematic to make an inadvertent or foolish commitment to North Korea.
For Trump, this announcement also has the benefit of changing the topic of the headlines away from a porn actress and a Russia investigation. Maybe Trump has thought this summit through, or maybe he just wants to change the subject.
We also need to reassure our allies and partners in Asia, particularly South Korea and Japan, that we’re not going to willy-nilly abandon them as part of some deal with North Korea. Trump should include them in the discussions and planning.
Still, it’s encouraging that Kim issued this invitation, that he doesn’t object to resumption of US military exercises, and that he apparently is talking about suspending missile and nuclear tests.
The last is the most important: If he will suspend testing, then there may be a deal to be done.
Such a deal would involve North Korea giving up its nuclear program in exchange for ending sanctions and normalising relations, with some commitments from North Korea on human rights as well.
One obvious question: Does Trump get credit for pushing the North Koreans to make concessions, such as suspension of testing?
The answer, I think, is maybe he does, in two respects.
First, Trump raised the economic pressure on North Korea with additional sanctions and extra support from China, and the pain was visible when I visited North Korea in September. Kim has tried to make rising living standards a hallmark of this leadership, and the sanctions have threatened that pillar of his legitimacy.
Second, Trump’s talk about military strikes may or may not have rattled North Korea, but they certainly horrified South Korea and it was its deft diplomatic outreach that led to the North Korean promise to suspend testing.
So give Trump’s approach some credit. But there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about where all this leads.
We still don’t really know what Kim’s expectations are, and a failed summit could trigger new escalations on each side, leaving us worse off than where we started.
I wish the path began with extensive discussions at the national security adviser level, and only after that, a summit, but at least it suggests a recognition on both sides that the way forward lies with talks rather than tanks.
-New York Times