Donald Trump made the case in “The Art of the Deal” for “winging it” on big negotiations. “I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,” he wrote. “I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”
Trump is now about to wing it on an epic, global stage in his planned face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Nobody in Washington or abroad seems to know just what Trump wants to accomplish in the meeting — an ambiguity the president apparently views as a beneficial source of leverage.
The problem is that if this particular “ball in the air” should fall, the result could be a military confrontation in Northeast Asia. I’ve been asking U.S. and Asian experts what a Trump-Kim summit might accomplish. There is a consensus that Trump has a big opportunity, but a very risky one, since the deal that is doable now may not be one that he can (or should) accept.
The most intriguing aspect of this diplomacy is that it is being shaped largely by the two Koreas. Kim has been a surprisingly nimble player, pivoting this year from his belligerent push for nuclear weapons toward dialogue and unilateral concessions. Kim’s partner has been President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, operating through his top intelligence advisers. They’ve set the table carefully, even though no one can predict yet what will be served at this meal.
The pace quickened with Thursday’s announcement that Kim and Moon will meet on April 27 for what a South Korean statement called the “start of a great journey to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.” The most interesting detail was that the meeting will take place on the “southern” side of the border zone at Panmunjom. The two previous Korea summits, in 2000 and 2007, took place in Pyongyang. Kim had apparently proposed Pyongyang again, and then another city close to the border, before agreeing to Panmunjom.
The meeting will set the stage for Trump’s encounter and allow some preliminary U.S.-North Korean contact. But the United States, in effect, is subcontracting the preparatory work to its Asian friends. South Korean intelligence has taken the lead, keeping CIA Director Mike Pompeo in the loop.
China is acting as a diplomatic concierge. Worried they might be excluded from the Kim-Trump feast, the Chinese invited the North Korean leader this week to Beijing. The visit helped “avoid the mentality that China is being marginalized,” as the Beijing Global Times expressed it this month. President Xi Jinping told Kim that China embraces “the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula.”
But make no mistake: It is the two Koreas that are driving the action, forcing their superpower allies to respond. Kim took the first steps by offering to halt weapons tests, discuss denuclearization and drop objections to U.S.-South Korean military exercises. With the PyeongChang Olympics as backdrop, Seoul brokered Kim’s offer of direct talks. Trump astounded the world with a quick “yes.” But this has mainly been a Korean production thus far.
So what, exactly, can the super-hyped Trump-Kim meeting accomplish? There’s a low-key version, in which the two leaders will agree on a framework for denuclearization and normalization of relations, claim it as a big “win,” and then turn the details over to working groups of experts. China endorsed the step-by-step approach Kim suggested this week — what he called “phased, synchronized measures.”
The problem is that for skeptics (starting with John Bolton, Trump’s incoming national security adviser), such an interim agreement would seem eerily like the 1994 “Agreed Framework” and the 2005 structure for the Six-Party talks — past “breakthroughs” that proved to be dead ends. U.S. officials have been studying why these past negotiations failed to deliver. One answer is that they lacked a vision of the end state for the Korean Peninsula, including the future role of U.S. troops stationed there.
Kurt Campbell, the leading Asia strategist during the Obama administration, argues that Trump and Kim should see themselves as mountain climbers, and establish a base camp from which they can eventually reach the peak of a “grand bargain.” But this base camp needs to be high enough up the mountain, anchored with enough specific provisions, that the peak is in sight.
Trump’s history is to “go big” and look for the flamboyant deal. Kim seems to have a similar flair for the dramatic, and he has already taken big, bold risks. Strangely, perhaps, the decisive achievement of the Trump-Kim summit may be personal chemistry between two leaders who, for all the insults they’ve exchanged, seem remarkably similar in temperament.