If President Trump knew anything about history, he would be worried about his success with North Korea. Never mind there is no agreement yet, and never mind that no meeting has been held — the facts speak to a Trump triumph. Could it be that Trump’s bluster and belligerence have persuaded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to play ball? It sure must look like it to Trump.
Whether it looks that way to Kim is a different matter. The proposed summit seemed to materialize out of thin air. Kim proposed, Trump accepted, and diplomats who like to negotiate the shape of the table were left out in the cold. It’s not even clear what denuclearization would mean. Trump used the term in a recent tweet — “agreed to denuclearization,” he said of North Korea — but Kim has agreed to no such thing. In fact, he has agreed to very little.
North Korea without a nuclear arsenal is like Saudi Arabia without oil. Without it, the country disappears from the geopolitical map and becomes just another developing nation that has a hard time feeding its own people. The nuclear program is what gives North Korea recognition, prestige and — not just incidentally — security. After Moammar Gaddafi gave up his weapons, his country went from being a regional player to a sandbox. When Ukraine abandoned its program in 1994, it got security guarantees from Britain, the United States and Russia. In 2014, that very same Russia invaded the eastern part of the country, and Britain and the United States did nothing.
These lessons are not lost on Kim. He and his father, Kim Jong Il, yearned for their country to be recognized as an important power — as important as that gaudy Korea to the south. They wanted a seat at the proverbial table. Nuclear weapons get you to the table. And now, without conceding very much, North Korea just got a sit-down with the United States of America. It never happened before because previous Washington administrations wanted some guarantee of success in exchange. Kim apparently got it for free. He must have read “The Art of the Deal.”
Trump, who in the words of his past-or-present lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, is “an amazing negotiator, maybe the best ever in the history of this world,” is likely to go into the talks with Kim as “Donald Trump in Full.” That means unprepared, cocky and splendidly ignorant. (He only recently discovered that the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.) Kim, in contrast, will have done his homework. The North Koreans have likely read up on Trump — books about him and his tweet oeuvre, if it can be called that. Somewhere along the line, they are likely to announce a misunderstanding. They will make no more nuclear weapons, but they will keep the ones they have.
Trump must feel vindicated. Never mind the South Koreans and all the work they’ve done — he has consistently taken credit for any positive development on the Korean Peninsula. Modesty in anything would not be Trump. He ignored or brushed aside the State Department types who advocated caution. He leaped into the ring. His success so far can only affirm his quasi-religious faith in his own instincts. Should another crisis erupt, it would be nearly impossible to get him to listen to experienced hands, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Trump doubtlessly thinks he has a negotiating skill that is a God-given talent. Such confidence is dangerous on the world stage. Foreign affairs is not like real estate development. History intrudes. Pride, not profit, can prevail.
In the long term, a greater danger looms. Trump sees himself as someone who never fails. But Kim will not give up his nuclear weapon program — not the bombs, not the missiles — and Trump will exit the summit appearing a failure, with none of his onetime aides — H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson — to mollify him. No secret preliminary talks will obscure the result. The president, his prestige and his leviathan of an ego will be on the line, and war will be a greater, not lesser, possibility.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.
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