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Why it doesn’t actually matter much whether Trump and Kim Jong Un meet soon

As U.S. and North Korean negotiators try to put a summit back on track, there are other issues more immediate and more important than whether Trump and Kim have a face-to-face meeting.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Korea Summit Press Pool

Summit? No summit? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter so much if President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet sometime soon. Or it shouldn’t matter so much.

Of course, such a meeting would be historic. But as U.S. and North Korean negotiators try to put it back on track, there are other issues more immediate and more important than whether and when the two men will meet. One of the biggest is building trust.  

If you’re in North Korea, you have to ask yourself after Trump canceled the June 12 meeting: How you can trust anything Washington promises? North Korea has its own huge issues with trustworthiness, but that doesn’t eliminate the fact that you need both sides in order to make an agreement.

The United States is still the adult in this relationship. However, it has been looking less mature and stable of late. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and the administration’s focus on Libya as a disarmament model – courtesy of new National Security Adviser John Bolton – has to affect North Korea’s thinking. A reference to Libya prompted the caustic language that Trump cited when he canceled the meeting.

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Add to that the fact that North Korea made some modest concessions — releasing three U.S. citizens and destroying its nuclear test site (which might already have been damaged beyond use) — only to see Trump cancel the meeting. That’s not what you call confidence-building.

James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said Sunday that Kim may have “met his match” in Trump. That’s a striking comment coming from Clapper, who is no fan of the U.S. president. If Trump is trying to “out-crazy” Kim, he’s doing a decent job of it.

There is another more careful, and probably more fruitful, way of looking at the relationship, too. It starts with the premise that you’re trying to cut a deal between bitter adversaries governed by volatile personalities. What is the best way to make a deal that will actually stick despite all of the tricky implementation issues guaranteed to come up?

Basically, Trump would have to decide not to act like Trump. Start slow. Define priorities and realistic expectations. Don’t get hung up on whether a summit meeting actually takes place June 12. You’re going to be making headlines, anyhow. Maybe you won’t get the instant gratification, but in the end, the headlines will be more positive.

Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has offered a blueprint for how to go about that strategy. Haass acknowledges that it is tempting to go big. Throw everything into the negotiation: not only North Korea’s nuclear program, but future relations with the United States and South Korea, economic sanctions, foreign aid and human rights, among other issues. And there is an equal temptation to aim for the maximum concession on each item. As Haass points out, the more balls in the air, the more trade-offs are possible. But it’s also more likely that one or more will fall, and that will be enough to wreck the whole effort. And the more you demand, the more likely it is that you’ll fail altogether.

Now, think about timing and verification, the mechanisms for bringing trust into play. Neither side will strike a deal if it doesn’t trust the other side to implement it. Sure, it’s possible to demand that North Korea completely and immediately end its nuclear program. But what, exactly, do you mean by that, and how quickly could it actually be done? What do you give up in return? How does either side prove it has done what it promised?

Let’s suppose Trump and Kim do meet and strike a grand bargain. In the best of circumstances, not everything can be done at once. It takes years, not weeks or months, to dispose of a nuclear arsenal. What do these volatile personalities do when something goes off the rails — which is inevitable — or when North Korea and the United States have a difference interpretation of an item drawn up in the haste of a thrown-together summit?

There is next to no trust between the U.S. and North Korea. The talks underway about organizing a summit may create a little. But without the painstaking work of building up to a big deal with a lot of little deals — and verifying along the way that each side is keeping its word — you leave far too much room for misunderstanding and failure. Failure brings you back to the prospect of war. With nukes.

Diplomacy traditionally focuses on carefully defining priorities. What is achievable, and what can be verified? That’s what President Obama did in negotiating with Iran. Maybe you hated that agreement because you think he excluded too much or gave up too much. But he got a deal, and the Iranians were abiding by it when Trump killed it.

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Trump has spent his presidency undoing Obama’s actions. If he really wants a deal with North Korea that will stick, he ought to approach it more like Obama. And his deal might look a bit like the Iran deal.