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Things move so quickly and unexpectedly in the Trump White House that it’s often hard to wrap your head around what’s really going on. And that inclination toward chaos and impulse was on full display last night, as President Trump accepted North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un’s invitation to talks in May.
WHAT IT MEANS
- From the NYT: “North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has invited President Trump to meet for negotiations over its nuclear program, an audacious diplomatic overture that would bring together two strong-willed, idiosyncratic leaders who have traded threats of war. The White House said that Mr. Trump had accepted the invitation, and Chung Eui-yong, a South Korean official who conveyed it, told reporters that the president would meet with Mr. Kim within two months.”
- “For Mr. Trump, a meeting with Mr. Kim, a leader he has threatened with ‘fire and fury’ and has derided as ‘Little Rocket Man,’ is a breathtaking gamble. No sitting American president has ever met a North Korean leader, and Mr. Trump himself has repeatedly vowed that he would not commit the error of his predecessors by being drawn into a protracted negotiation in which North Korea extracted concessions from the United States but held on to key elements of its nuclear program. Meeting Mr. Kim now, rather than at the end of a negotiation when the United States would presumably have extracted concessions from North Korea, is an enormous gesture by the president. But Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim share a penchant for bold, dramatic moves, and their personal participation in a negotiation could take it in unexpected directions.”
- “Behind the scenes, events unfolded even more haphazardly. Mr. Trump was not scheduled to meet Mr. Chung until Friday, but when he heard that the envoy was in the West Wing seeing other officials, the president summoned him to the Oval Office, according to a senior administration official. Mr. Trump, the official said, then asked Mr. Chung to tell him about his meeting with Mr. Kim. 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. … White House officials had expected to deliberate for several days over how to respond to North Korea’s proposal for direct talks between the countries, which South Korean officials had first conveyed by telephone this week. But Mr. Kim’s offer of a leader-to-leader meeting accelerated, if not upended, the administration’s plans.”
- WaPo’s Karen DeYoung sees this as a big win for the West Wing: “For the moment, at least, it appears to be a clear-cut victory—the biggest foreign policy win of his young administration. President Trump has brought his arch-nemesis, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a.k.a. ‘Little Rocket Man,’ to the table to negotiate away his nuclear arsenal. Optimists declared a major breakthrough. Even pessimists acknowledged that Trump’s hard line against Pyongyang, after decades of less forceful U.S. effort, played a significant role in moving one of the world’s most vexing and threatening problems in a potentially positive direction.”
- But conservative columnist Max Boot, a never-Trumper, thinks Trump is getting played [WaPo]: “Now, in a head-snapping display of incoherence, Trump has agreed to meet Kim, giving the worst human-rights abuser on the planet, what he most wants: international legitimacy. Kim will be able to tell his people that the American president is kowtowing to him because he is scared of North Korea’s mighty nuclear arsenal. … For decades, North Korea has engaged in a bait and switch. It has staged provocations, such as the torpedoing of a South Korean naval ship in 2010, interspersed with offers to negotiate. The end game has always been the same: It has hoped to be paid for not staging further provocations. In other words, it was attempting to blackmail the West.”
- In The Atlantic, Uri Friedman makes a similar point: “The past is indeed instructive. Consider this scenario: North Korea creates an international crisis, threatening to turn South Korea’s capital into ‘a sea of fire’ and advancing its nuclear program in ways that prompt the United States to seriously consider taking military action. And then, just when it has reached the brink of conflict, North Korea leverages that crisis to bargain with South Korea as ‘equals’ and negotiate with the United States from a position of strength, despite being a much weaker power.”
: Conservatives roundly mocked Barack Obama when he said he would meet with foreign adversaries without preconditions—and now that’s just what Trump’s doing. And I suspect when the first polling on the subject is released, you’ll see the partisans reverse course on the matter—Republicans will now be cool with leader-to-leader talks, but Democrats won’t. To be honest, I thought Obama was onto something, so long as your diplomatic corps first lays the groundwork so that the talks achieve something. Talking is better than shooting. And so, if I’m being principled, I should then support Trump talking to Kim, right? On that, I’m not so sure. The problem, of course, is Trump, who’s often playing checkers on a chessboard while thinking he’s a chess master. The president’s acceptance of Kim’s offer was rash, which doesn’t hold out much hope that Trump or his team will be prepped for negotiations within two months.
- However: North Korea is apparently coming to the table, and if Trump can somehow legitimately convince the North to give up its nuclear program, that would be a major victory not only for the U.S. but also Southeast Asia. Trump, through sanctions and threats and bluster, will have done what four other American presidents have been unable to do. Of course, that’s a gigantic if.
- There are pratfalls worth considering: There’s the problem of legitimizing Kim, a murderous despot. There’s also this: “‘Engaging an adversary with whom we’ve had scant communications over many years presents especially difficult challenges,” warned [Suzanne DiMaggio of the New America Foundation]. ‘A hollowed-out State Department only amplifies the magnitude of the challenges. This, combined with President Trump’s infamous penchant for going off script and his admiration of authoritarian types, could weaken our negotiating position.’ … Adam Mount, a senior fellow and director of the Defense Posture Project of the Federation of American Scientists, said North Korea could put a reasonable deal on the table that Trump feels unable to accept. That could lead other regional players—and particularly China—to decide that Pyongyang is not the problem.” And, finally: “If Trump goes into the summit looking for a huge, game-changing breakthrough and comes up embarrassingly short, he could find himself with few options for a next step.”