The United States, on the other hand, may be a different story. That’s not to say that things have gotten more dangerous; when Trump says it’s better that the two countries are talking than if they weren’t, he’s right. But his boundless faith in his persuasive powers, the ease with which he can be manipulated, and his eagerness for something he can call a victory may all combine to leave us no closer to our ultimate goal — North Korea no longer being a nuclear threat to us or anyone else — than we ever were.
The biggest question mark, as always, is what Trump will do when he and Kim are alone together. Kim obviously understands that Trump's extraordinary insecurity and thirst for validation makes him susceptible to flattery, so in recent months the North Korean has obliged:
Trump gloats about the half-dozen or so letters Kim has written him as if he were a smitten teenager in possession of valentines from a crush. White House officials refer to the diplomatic correspondence jokingly as “love letters.” Kim addresses Trump as “Your Excellency” and employs flowery language to describe the president’s energy and political smarts, according to people who have read them. Trump has shown the documents to dozens of Oval Office visitors and bragged about them in public.“He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters,” Trump said at a September rally in West Virginia. “We fell in love.”
You might think there’s something vulgar about falling “in love” with the man who may be the world’s most brutal and oppressive dictator, but that’s not surprising coming from Trump. And when the two get together, our president can barely contain his admiration:
President Donald Trump was looking to flatter his new friend in Singapore when he struck upon an unusual compliment.He had known plenty of people who had grown up wealthy and whose families were powerful, Trump told Kim Jong Un, the despotic North Korean dictator whose father and grandfather held the same role.Many of them emerged messed up, Trump said. But, he added, Kim wasn’t one of them.
It takes one very stable genius to recognize another, I guess. But behind the scenes, administration officials have been working on the outline of an agreement the two leaders might sign, and Alex Ward of Vox obtained some details. It’s somewhat encouraging even if it does give North Korea more than they have to give up. The two countries will declare a symbolic end to the Korean War; North Korea will return some more remains of U.S. soldiers; the two will establish liaison offices (something less than an embassy) in each other’s countries; and “North Korea will agree to stop producing materials for nuclear bombs at its Yongbyon facility.” In exchange, they will get sanctions relief.
But as always, the devil is in the details. Will they allow inspections at Yongbyon, or at other sites? What's the timetable? Do they get the sanctions relief first? You may recall that at the last summit, North Korea agreed to "work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," which in practice committed them to nothing. Trump hailed that at the time as a great victory, even though it didn't do anything to reduce Kim's stockpiles or mean he was dismantling his nuclear program. Meanwhile, the North Koreans kept moving ahead with their missile program.
Which gets to the central dilemma in these negotiations and North Korea’s relationship with the world: No matter how much we want them to give up their nukes, no matter what benefits we might dangle in front of Kim, no matter how much Trump extols the potential of North Korea’s beaches for hotels and condos, Kim has always seen nuclear weapons as key to his survival. He saw what happened to leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi who didn’t have them: They were deposed and killed.
This has been plain for some time. Recently Trump’s own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, testified that North Korea “is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”
Perhaps since the last time Trump met, Kim has gained some new perspective on that question. Perhaps he has decided that he can give up those weapons and survive. But we don't have any reason to think so.
That doesn’t mean that negotiations are a waste of time. Talking is better than not talking, even baby steps are worthwhile, and as long as there’s any possibility of a breakthrough we should pursue it. But if there’s one thing we know by now, it’s that Donald Trump is an absolutely dreadful negotiator. If he thinks that through the force of his magnetic personality he can convince Kim to do something he doesn’t want to do, he’s almost certainly mistaken.
Which is why the most likely outcome of this summit is what happened with the last one: an “agreement” that Trump will hail as a triumph, but that won’t do much of anything to change the situation.