North Korea’s belligerent leader, Kim Jong Un, has asked President Trump for talks and Trump has agreed to meet him “by May,” South Korea’s national security adviser said at the White House Thursday after delivering the invitation to the American president.
Kim has also committed to stopping nuclear and missile testing, even during joint military drills in South Korea next month, Chung Eui-yong told reporters in Washington. …
Some analysts say that Kim is suddenly interested in talks because the sanctions are beginning to hurt and because he is genuinely afraid of American military strikes.
But others say that he’s feeling more confident than ever. In November, Kim declared that he had “completed” his missile program and is now ready to deal with the United States — on an equal footing, as nuclear state to nuclear state.
Another possibility is that Kim has observed the autocratic leaders of Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines play Trump like a fiddle. The president’s enormous ego makes him easy prey for experienced flatterers. “He’s such an easy mark,” says Eliot A. Cohen, a former State Department official and frequent Trump critic. “Particularly for world class thugs — he’s just a petty grifter who thinks he’s in their class.”
Others question the propriety of giving a notorious dictator — responsible for the deaths, torture and imprisonment of thousands — the publicity triumph of appearing with the American president. Former CIA director Michael Hayden told me this is nothing but a “free giveaway” to the North Korean dictator.
It was only six weeks ago when Trump, during his State of the Union address, declared that “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea. … We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.” He then went on to describe the regime’s brutalization of a young American, even introducing his grieving parents to the country:
Otto Warmbier was a hardworking student at the University of Virginia. On his way to study abroad in Asia, Otto joined a tour to North Korea. At its conclusion, this wonderful young man was arrested and charged with crimes against the state. After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor, before returning him to America last June — horribly injured and on the verge of death. He passed away just days after his return.
Otto’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, are with us tonight — along with Otto’s brother and sister, Austin and Greta. You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires us all. Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.
And Trump didn’t stop there. He also introduced another victim of Kim’s regime, Ji Seong-ho, who was tortured and escaped the regime on crutches.
Is Trump now to glad-hand with Kim, treating him as just another world leader? Will Trump even bring up human rights? (You will recall that, in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama was ridiculed for suggesting he’d sit down with the North Korean dictator; he prudently backed off that idea.)
John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA, pointed to other concerns — namely Trump’s team: “These people have never been in a real negotiation … and have no idea how complicated this will be.” If there is no progress before a May meeting, what is the point of a face-to-face discussion between Trump and a recalcitrant dictator? “May seems too soon,” observed McLaughlin, although he noted the meeting could be delayed.
And that is really the rub: Is Trump or anyone else in the administration, including the intelligence community, really prepared to have such a high-stakes negotiation? With Trump — who cannot even follow his lawyers’ advice to not incriminate himself — the chance of going off-script is exceptionally high, with potentially disastrous results. Initial indications were far from encouraging. The Post reports:
President Trump’s high-wire gambit to accept a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sets off a scramble among U.S. officials to assemble a team capable of supporting a historic summit of longtime adversaries and determine a viable engagement strategy.
State Department officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were downplaying the immediacy of talks in the hours before the White House rolled out the South Korean national security adviser, who made the surprise announcement that Trump would meet with Kim.
The apparent lack of coordination marked a pattern of mixed messaging that has characterized the Trump administration’s North Korea diplomacy since Pyongyang launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile last year, sparking the Trump White House’s biggest national security crisis to date.
Here, Trump and Tillerson’s hollowing-out of the State Department comes home to roost:
“The U.S. point person on North Korea, special envoy Joseph Yun, announced his retirement in late February and has not been replaced. More than a year in, the administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea. And the Senate has not confirmed the top U.S. diplomat to eastern Asia.”
Finally, few experienced Asia diplomats expect Kim to give up his nuclear weapons, which he is convinced are the key to his regime’s survival. This may be one more “terrible deal” — as Trump would say — in the making, one in which North Korea gains prestige and maybe economic relief in exchange for unverifiable actions. “Talks can be good, but a summit should be a carrot for the end of a satisfactory process, not the beginning,” cautions Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security. He thinks that there is a “high chance Kim will pocket the optics, show his people and the world he is received as a legitimate head of state, and in the end keep his programs intact.”
Fontaine is not alone in his thinking. “The risk is that Trump has little knowledge of the history of negotiations with North Korea,” says Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute. “There is some chance he will think that he has a unique opportunity to make progress on North Korea’s nuclear program, when in fact he’s going down the same road that the Clinton and Bush administration’s have.” He says bluntly, “North Korea is not giving up its nuclear weapons. Period.”
Even in the hands of the most astute diplomats and serious presidents, this meeting would be a daunting proposition; in the hands of the Trump crew, the prospect of face-to-face meetings is, candidly, petrifying.