Donald Trump loves to shake things up and do what presidents before him were unwilling to do, which is the simplest explanation for why he has accepted a proposal to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Not only has there never been a meeting between the leaders of the two countries in the seven decades since the Korean War, there has never even been a phone conversation.
Which leads to the inevitable question: How is Trump going to screw this up?
Characteristically, Trump’s decision seems to have caught his entire government off guard. The proposal was arranged by the South Korean national security adviser, who met with Kim in North Korea and brought the idea to the White House. But at the moment we don’t even have an ambassador to South Korea, and the State Department’s point person on North Korean issues just retired and hasn’t been replaced.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was apparently blindsided. “We’re a long way from negotiations. We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it,” he said Thursday just a few hours before the news broke.
There are some objections that could be raised to this meeting. Perhaps the best way to think about it is to imagine what Republicans would be saying if Hillary Clinton were president and she did what Trump is doing. They’d denounce her for playing right into Kim’s hands, offering him the prestige of a meeting on equal footing with the leader of the world’s most powerful country while getting nothing in return as a precondition (except a temporary halt to nuclear and missile testing). They’d say that North Korea can’t be trusted, because it has made agreements in the past to restrict its nuclear program and then cheated. They’d say that she was being naive, getting snookered by someone who’s obviously more clever than she.
All of which might be true, just as it might be true now. Nevertheless, there are some good reasons to give this meeting a shot. Nothing else seems to be working, and North Korea is apparently now in possession of not only nuclear weapons but missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland. If it takes a meeting that makes Kim feel important in order to extract meaningful concessions, then it would seem to be worth it.
But there are strong reasons to be skeptical that Kim is really going to give up his nuclear program, the most important of which is that it is the one thing that guarantees his power and even his life. The experiences of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi taught Kim a lesson: If you give up your weapons, eventually you’ll wind up deposed and executed. Kim’s government even says this publicly.
There isn’t necessarily anything delusional about believing that. If you’re a dictator whose most important goal is maintaining power, it’s a rational position to take. On the other hand, you could argue that Kim has a strong non-nuclear deterrent (all those conventional weapons he has pointed at Seoul) and his nuclear program antagonizes the rest of the world. But nuclear weapons also provide prestige — after all, if he didn’t have them, could he get the president of the United States to meet with him? — placing his country among the world’s elite.
Any way you look at it, we’d have to have something truly spectacular to offer Kim if he were to actually dismantle his weapons, and it’s hard to believe that relief from sanctions would be enough. But it’s hard to imagine that Trump is actually thinking in anything resembling nuanced terms about this situation.
Everything Trump has done up until this point has looked a lot like the actions of an insecure narcissist who wants to perform dominance displays, just as he does with everyone he deals with. We can be fairly certain that Trump will not prepare adequately for a meeting with Kim — he won’t understand the diplomatic history between the two countries, the various forces buffeting North Korea, or the incentives Kim has to take one course or another.
While Trump fancies himself the world’s greatest dealmaker, we’ve seen over the past year that he actually understands very little about negotiation. His specialty is bullying people into accepting terms that are favorable to him and unfavorable to them. As Heather Hurlburt notes of the two men:
Each leader has calculated that a meeting — or the announcement of a meeting in the future — will make him look strong to his base and help him get more of the international attention he craves. But each leader is also used to playing a zero-sum, two-men-enter-the-ring-one-man-leaves style of diplomacy.
So what could go wrong? The scenarios range from relatively benign to catastrophic. They could chat for a while but come to no agreement. We could make a deal that gives North Korea economic help in exchange for some restrictions on their nuclear program, and they could then cheat on the deal and maintain their nuclear capability, and we’d be back in the same place. Trump could give North Korea the economic assistance it needs but in return get little or nothing — say, a moratorium on new nuclear testing but no dismantling of the existing weapons — just so he could say he made a deal. Or he could get into a shouting match that makes him so angry he orders a strike on North Korea, setting off a nuclear conflagration. Or Trump could find some way to screw things up that nobody has even thought of yet.
If this meeting actually produces some progress, Trump should get the credit he deserves for it. But I’ll believe it when I see it.