Last week, after nearly a year of invective and military threats by both the United States and North Korea, a meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un was announced. This took many foreign policy watchers by surprise, pleasing Trump’s supporters to no end. The thing is, some of those foreign-policy watchers work for the Trump administration. As Mark Landler of the New York Times reported, the decision-making process was a wee bit chaotic:
When Mr. Chung said that the North Korean leader had expressed a desire to meet Mr. Trump, the president immediately said he would do it, and directed Mr. Chung to announce it to the White House press corps.
Mr. Chung, nonplused, said he first needed approval from Mr. Moon, who quickly granted it in a phone call. Mr. Trump later called Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and the two discussed coordinating diplomatic efforts. Mr. Trump also plans to call President Xi Jinping of China.
By day’s end, dazed White House officials were discussing whether Mr. Trump would invite Mr. Kim to come to the United States. That seemed entirely likely, the senior administration official said, though American officials doubt the North Korean leader would accept.
The White House staff was not the only group caught unaware. I’m shocked, shocked to report that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to be out of the loop on Trump’s decision. The president had to call Abe to calm him down. And GOP leaders were caught flat-footed.
The chaos extended into last Friday. In her briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly stressed the “concrete steps” the North Koreans would need to take before a summit took place. It seemed as though the White House was walking back the likelihood of the summit.
A few hours later, the walkback was walked back:
Over the weekend, Trump and his team started to sound like they were singing from the same songbook. Trump bragged about the summit in his stemwinder of a campaign speech in Pennsylvania, and also on Twitter:
By Sunday, Trump’s most loyal Cabinet members fanned out across the morning shows to express confidence in his leadership.
So, given all this, what should we expect? Max Fisher of the New York Times offered up a sober analysis that is well worth reading. I would offer only two additional predictions for how this will play out:
1) The summit probably will happen. With each passing day, the evidence points to this meeting taking place. This is for a few reasons. First, both sides can participate in the summit arguing that they’re coming from a position of strength. The Trump administration can claim that its “maximum pressure” policy brought Kim to the table. There might even be a small grain of truth to that claim. On the other hand, Kim can argue that North Korea’s successful nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2017 puts it in a position of strength as well. There is a large grain of truth to that point, also.
Second, an actual summit meeting is a win-win move for Trump and Kim. Trump gets to claim that he has done something no sitting president has ever done before: meet the leader of North Korea. Barack Obama did not do this, which to Trump sounds like a win. Of course, Kim gets the far greater diplomatic prize of meeting with the president of the United States as an equal head of state.
Many commentators have pointed out that Kim receives the lopsided benefits of any meeting taking place. But for a president with no sense of shame, these kind of optics simply do not matter. To be fair, maybe having no shame is a bargaining advantage for President Trump.
Third, North Korea seems likely to do what it has to for the summit to take place. If you read between the lines, Kim’s regime has to do three things for this to go forward: conduct no new nuclear or missile tests, let the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises proceed without criticism and say denuclearization is on the negotiating table. North Korea can do all of these things pretty easily. It certainly does not need to worry about domestic blowback.
Most important, with each passing day, Trump gets more invested in the idea of having this meeting. He’s tweeting out nice things about North Korea. His CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, actually said on a Sunday morning show that Pyongyang had “allowed” joint US-ROK exercises, like anyone needs Kim Jong Un’s permission on these matters. The more Trump hypes up the meeting, the bigger the fall if it gets scrubbed. The president badly wants this to happen. Short of an egregious action by the North Koreans, it’s going to happen.
So I think it’s going to happen (and put me down for the Peace House in Panmunjon as the likely location). That said …
2) The summit will be a slow-motion disaster. Trump’s record of meetings with authoritarian rivals is … not a distinguished one. The closest analogy to the coming summit is Trump’s long meeting with Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G-20 summit in July. That led to a widely mocked announcement of a joint “impenetrable Cyber Security unit.” Trump was very happy about that:
Less than 24 hours later, Trump contradicted himself by tweet again:
As Duyeon Kim points out in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the odds of mutual misunderstanding between the United States and North Korea are even greater. Even the word “denuclearization” means different things to the participants:
During the Six Party Talks (from 2003 to 2008), Pyongyang demanded that the language in agreements (between the Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States) refer to “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” instead of “denuclearization of North Korea” as originally planned. This showed the North’s lingering suspicion that American tactical nuclear weapons were still stationed in South Korea, even though they were withdrawn in 1991. Moreover, past statements suggest that Kim Jong-un’s regime wants arms control talks with Washington, and might denuclearize if both sides reciprocally reduced and eventually eliminated their nuclear weapons.
For Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo, on the other hand, “denuclearization” simply means a nuclear weapons-free North Korea.
Furthermore, Trump’s continued beclowning of the executive branch means that he is not going to be adequately staffed for this meeting. This is particularly true with respect to Korea issues. Trump doesn’t want to be adequately staffed. Unsurprisingly, this administration’s ability to keep allies and partners in the loop is not great. It would not surprise me at all if some agreement was announced, followed by its collapse within the next week. As nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis noted in Foreign Policy, “It’s like Richard Nixon going to China, but if Nixon were a moron.”
What concerns me is what happens after a breakdown. Victor Cha, who was supposed to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea, closed his analysis of the announced summit with an ominous prediction:
Everyone should be aware that this dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have “run out of road” on North Korea.
He’s not wrong.