The pros and cons of a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong UnOn March 10, 2018 by Zander
TO SUPPORTERS of Donald Trump, March 8th’s news that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to meet America’s president, and soon, only goes to prove the potency of a foreign policy that blends toughness with just a dash of crazy. To Mr Trump’s sceptics, it is as obvious that such an unprecedented summit would be a terrifying gamble. After the announcement that Mr Trump is willing to meet Mr Kim as soon as May, much of the professional Korea-watching community rose up on social media and cable news to deplore the blustering, impulsive and fact-scorning 45th president as the last man they would send to negotiate with the ruthless, carefully prepared North Korean regime.
Each camp has a point. Successive American administrations have spent years on cautious, painstaking diplomacy with the Kim family dynasty, backed by a judicious mix of sanctions and bribes. After each deal was reached the North Koreans pocketed the aid and concessions on offer, broke their word and returned to their decades-long quest to develop nuclear weapons. At best, all that expertise and patience might have slowed North Korea’s path to a bomb by a few years.
Now America is giving bluster and incoherence a go. This blogger has been told by Asian diplomats that—for all that they blench when Mr Trump mocks the 34-year old Mr Kim as “Little Rocket Man” or boasts about the size of America’s nuclear button—they can see a value to challenging the North Koreans in the field of unpredictability, which the Stalinist state has had to itself for so long. It is also the case that North Korea’s ailing planned economy faces its toughest-ever sanctions—even if China continues to supply its neighbour with energy and food, fearing that the regime’s collapse could create a hostile, unified Korea on its border.
The trio of envoys sent by South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in to meet the North Koreans, and then sent to Washington to brief Mr Trump, ascribed their optimism to the American president’s forceful approach. South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, emerged from the White House to tell the press that he wished to thank Mr Trump’s “wonderful national-security team” and had “explained to President Trump that his leadership and his maximum-pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture.” Mr Chung added that Mr Kim had told him he is “committed to denuclearisation” and had promised to refrain from further tests of missiles and warheads.
But sceptics are also right to fear that Mr Trump—a man who boasts about his television ratings, and who is bored by briefings and scornful of foreign alliances—could end up being played like a gold-plated violin. There is nothing new about a North Korean despot proposing a meeting with an American president, or expressing warm words about denuclearisation in return for security guarantees, by which the Kim regime usually means the withdrawal of American troops from the Korean peninsula and the breaking of treaty alliances with South Korea and Japan. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies flung an especially scornful thread onto the Twittersphere, noting: “North Korea has been seeking a summit with an American president for more than twenty years. It has literally been a top foreign policy goal of Pyongyang since Kim Jong Il invited Bill Clinton. I wonder if Trump’s “aides” have explained that to him. Or, if in their toddler-handling, they have led him to believe that this offer is something unusual. Or perhaps he imagines that only he can go Pyongyang [sic].” It is not reassuring that Team Trump is so thinly staffed: the administration has not even managed to nominate an ambassador to South Korea. Its North Korean special envoy, the senior diplomat Joseph Yun, announced his retirement in February.
And yet, as word of the summit pinged around the internet and barged onto newspaper front pages already crowded with Trump-news, a third camp made itself heard, arguing that maybe this time is different. Strikingly, if members of this group think that a historic chance for peace might just be within reach, their hopes have little to do with Mr Trump’s personality. Instead, their judgment reflects a grim new reality. After a string of rapid breakthroughs with long-range missiles and tests of nuclear explosives, North Korea may feel it is in a position to negotiate with the Americans as something close to an equal.
James Clapper, a career military intelligence officer who rose to become Director of National Intelligence during Barack Obama’s presidency, serving from 2010 to 2017, has had harsh things to say about Mr Trump. But he cautiously welcomed talk of a Trump-Kim summit. If still in office, he would recommend that the president go, he said. “But I would advise that he do something that doesn’t come easily to Donald Trump, which is to listen. We need to hear from Kim Jong Un himself what it would take for him to feel secure,” General Clapper told this blogger (in the interests of transparency: the conversation took place in the backstage green room at CNN). In 2014 the general was sent to Pyongyang on a secret mission to bring back two Americans being held in North Korea. While there, he recalled, the North Koreans had stressed their desire for a full-scale peace treaty with America, to replace the ceasefire that ended the Korean war. Yes, the former spy chief conceded, the North Koreans have ambitions to push American forces out of their region. But that is no reason not to talk. “I think they may be feeling confident now that whatever they have is enough that they would not be meeting the president as a supplicant.”
Presented as an intelligence-gathering mission, a Trump-Kim summit does sounds potentially useful. In North Korea, nothing carries so much weight as the words of Kim Jong Un, third-generation leader of the world’s only hereditary Stalinist regime. A spectacular meeting with the world’s most famous man might strike Mr Kim as a moment worthy of candour.
Still allies have grounds to worry. Mr Trump may have something more ambitious in mind than a listening exercise. Reporters asked a senior administration official why a face-to-face leaders’ meeting did not need to be preceded by rounds of talks by lower-level officials. He said
President Trump made his reputation on making deals. Kim Jong Un is the one person who is able to make decisions under their authoritarian—uniquely authoritarian—or totalitarian system. And so it made sense to accept an invitation to meet with the one person who can actually make decisions instead of repeating the, sort of, long slog of the past.
What could be more satisfying than a sudden, historic deal to make all those mocking experts and diplomats eat their words? And to pull off a quick win, Mr Trump the salesman has long been willing to promise anything—especially when someone else will pay the price for failure.