There is only one real question hanging over this week’s meeting in Hanoi between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: Can Trump avoid the temptation to give up too much in a splashy-sounding deal?
As long as Trump remains president, it’s hard to imagine the United States launching military action against North Korea. And there is a good chance that North Korea will be careful not to provoke the United States. That’s a remarkable turn of events, considering North Korea’s schedule of nuclear and missile tests in 2017, and Trump’s over-the-top response.
That all changed, of course, after the two men met last June. Despite widespread — and continuing — skepticism in the U.S. military and intelligence communities, Trump declared the North Korean nuclear threat over. The president is deeply invested in this.
Trump is now fully of praise for Kim, going so far as to tell a rally in September that Kim had subsequently written him “beautiful letters,” and that “We fell in love.” Even for Trump, that was a pretty weird thing to say.
Regardless, Trump is not actually solving this problem — as even his own advisers agree. National Security Advisor John Bolton is widely reported to regard Trump’s outreach to Kim as a dead end. The director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, told Congress last month that Kim is unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while denying that he was contradicting Trump, said Sunday that North Korea remained a nuclear threat.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, reported in January that North Korea has about 20 undeclared missile bases. In Senate testimony earlier this month, a top U.S. general said he had not seen any evidence that North Korea has slowed down its nuclear program.
A confidential U.N. report also finds that North Korea is selling military equipment and chemical weapons materials throughout the Middle East and Africa, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
Trump is trying to downplay expectations of major progress at the Hanoi summit, saying he had no timetable for North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal or missile program. He said he was in no rush, as long as Kim held to a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. But officials in his own administration and analysts question whether he’ll be tempted by the prospect of coming away with something dramatic.
Washington is rife with reports that the Mueller investigation is nearing completion, and Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, testifies before three congressional committees this week. One can hope the president wouldn’t let that affect his negotiating strategy. However, Trump’s recent fixation on how deserving he is of the Nobel Peace Prize for his negotiations with Kim doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in his judgment.
The Washington Post reports tensions within the administration about the summit, with Bolton concerned that Trump’s point man on North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was trying too hard to reach some kind of deal Trump could announce after the summit.
Kim is big on offering up stuff he doesn’t need anymore, like the nuclear test facility he blew up as a goodwill gesture before the last summit. He may offer more such facilities, but Trump and his advisers have to make sure they’re actually worth something.
Bolton is said to be concerned that Trump could agree to ease sanctions against North Korea without getting a serious commitment from Kim to give up his nuclear program. Trump could declare that his administration considers the state of war that still exists with North Korea to be ended, or even broach diplomatic recognition.
He could offer to reduce U.S. troop levels or remove military assets from the region in return for a variant of the same vague promises Kim gave him last time — “buying the same lame product for more money,” in the words of Victor Cha and Katrin Fraser Katz of CSIS.
Cha would have been ambassador to South Korea had plans to nominate him not been pulled at the last minute because he disagreed with Trump’s North Korea policy. Dramatic moves could play well in Trump’s domestic rallies because they would save money and the president could characterize them as a move toward peace, Cha and Katz said, but they would give away something of real value.
Kim might also spring a major offer on Trump, they said, like offering to dismantle his intercontinental missile program in exchange for a sizeable reduction in the U.S. military presence in the region. That could appeal to Trump’s “America First” instincts. But in reducing the threat to the United States, it could achieve a long-term North Korea — and Chinese — goal. It would make U.S. allies South Korea and Japan more vulnerable to North Korean and Chinese pressure.
Trump’s presidency has surprisingly provided a breather in a dangerous, long-running foreign policy problem. But that’s about all you can expect from his brand of personal diplomacy. Trump may indeed have fallen for Kim. The danger, of course, is that love is blind.