The Cable

What Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Dennis Rodman, and Beijing Could Have in Common

Not everyone thinks the de facto GOP nominee’s willingness to talk to North Korea is a bad idea. Some diplomats and experts even think it could help.

Kim

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says he’d “absolutely” talk to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and use his oft-touted negotiating skills to secure a deal to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Having an American president directly engaging in one-on-one diplomatic talks with North Korea’s mercurial leader would mark a truly seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy, which, for years, has been to largely isolate the hermit kingdom over its nuclear efforts while occasionally using a carrot-and-stick approach to try to persuade Pyongyang to change course. It isn’t the first time the showboating real estate magnate has promised to break with decades of bipartisan policy: He has also threatened to withdraw U.S. support from NATO and pull American troops from Japan and South Korea, encouraging North Korea’s neighbors to arm themselves with nuclear weapons instead.

Many of those proposals have alarmed lawmakers, officials, and experts of all political leanings. When it comes to holding direct talks with Kim, however, some are cautiously supportive of Trump’s idea.

While Trump declined to give Reuters the details of his plan for North Korea, he told the news agency he would not hesitate to engage Kim — or use economic measures against China unless it pressured Pyongyang to act more responsibly and avoid further escalation of the persistent security challenges on the Korean peninsula.

“I would speak to him. I would have no problem speaking to him,” Trump said, continuing, “I would put a lot of pressure on China because economically we have tremendous power over China.… China can solve that problem with one meeting or one phone call.”

Granted, Beijing is one of the only major diplomatic and economic supporters of the isolated country. But in a sign that Trump’s “coloring outside the lines” foreign-policy thinking could at least potentially open up new avenues toward progress, a Chinese official quickly agreed that Washington should engage in more direct dialogue with North Korea.

“China supports direct talks and communication between the United States and North Korea. We believe this is beneficial,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters, according to Reuters.

Several nonproliferation and regional security experts also said directly engaging Kim could be productive, though most were careful to refrain from endorsing Trump’s broader national security strategy.

Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said the next administration must adopt an approach to North Korea’s nuclear program that includes negotiations without preconditions and incentives to stop it — as well as consequences if Pyongyang continues to move ahead.

“Trump is right that the United States should talk with North Korea,” Davenport told Foreign Policy in an email Wednesday. “But talking alone is not going to change Pyongyang’s behavior — nor is threatening China with economic reprisals if Beijing refuses to ratchet up pressure on North Korea.”

The Obama administration’s policy has centered on a mix of stiff sanctions and periodic talks between senior U.S. officials — though none at the cabinet level — and their counterparts in Pyongyang. President Barack Obama slapped new sanctions on North Korea in March after it conducted nuclear and ballistic missile testing that violated long-standing six-party talks to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

“These actions are consistent with our long-standing commitment to apply sustained pressure on the North Korean regime,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at the time.

Trump’s comments also carry surprising echoes of another presidential candidate: then-Sen. Barack Obama during the Democrat’s first run for the White House in 2007.

In a presidential debate at the time in South Carolina, a YouTube questioner asked Obama if he would meet leaders from Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in the first year of his presidency, without preconditions. He responded, “I would.”

Obama’s primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator, said she wouldn’t. “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes,” she said.

Her campaign pounced on what it saw as evidence of the first-term Illinois senator’s lack of foreign-policy expertise, with Clinton calling the policy “irresponsible and frankly naive.” The Obama camp fought back by linking Clinton to the foreign policy of then-President George W. Bush and his axis of evil.”

Of course, Obama would go on to win the Democratic nomination and the election and ask Clinton to serve as his first secretary of state. She helped lay the groundwork for the diplomatic negotiations with Iran and Cuba that ultimately resulted in the president’s historic nuclear deal with Tehran and restoration of ties with Havana.

Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign pulled from the same playbook on Wednesday, pointing to Trump’s comments as continued evidence of his “unpredictable and dangerous” foreign policy and noting Trump has previously praised Kim for executing his uncle. As the presumptive Democratic nominee, Clinton is gearing up to face off with Trump in the general election.

Beyond Clinton, other experts similarly said Trump’s proposition could be destabilizing. They argue that North Korea is steadfastly committed to its nuclear program but desperate to be seen and respected as a global player, which means that such talks would merely be a propaganda win for Kim that could hurt the U.S. relationship with key regional allies like Japan and South Korea.

The South Korean Embassy did not provide comment by the time of publication. Neither the Japanese Embassy nor the Japanese U.N. mission responded to requests for comment. But Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said during a regular press conference on Wednesday that North Korea first had to prove itself. “In order to have a meaningful dialogue with North Korea, first it’s important for North Korea to prove it has taken tangible, concrete steps toward denuclearization,” Suga said.

Daniel Bob, a Japan expert at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, said Tokyo likely views Trump’s latest comments as “further proof” he doesn’t understand foreign policy and poses a danger to Northeast Asia in particular.

Bob did note engagement with the North Koreans could “possibly” be productive but added, “I for one don’t believe they will ever bargain away their nukes since they view them as their best security guarantee.”

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp., said while more “creative” approaches are needed to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, Trump’s overture instead plays directly into the regime’s objectives: bilateral negotiations with the United States.

“At least in North Korea, it looks like North Korea is a peer to the U.S., and South Korea is an inferior country,” he said.

“It mostly likely would be counterproductive,” Bennett continued. “Their objective would be to get recognized as a nuclear power, whereas our objective is to get them to eliminate their nuclear weapons. They have been very clear that they have no intention of ever eliminating their nuclear weapons. So basic diplomacy is going to be a losing proposition for any American president.”

Trump himself has called Kim a “maniac,” though he expressed admiration for the ruthless rule of the young leader, adding “We can’t play games with him.” Perhaps his best bet for an ambassador is former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who sparked headlines and outrage with a high-stakes, bizarre visit to the hermit kingdom to spend time with Kim, a basketball fan.

As Bob noted, “The only American who’s spoken to Kim Jong Un is Dennis Rodman, which speaks volumes about the diplomatic company Trump will join.”

FP reporter John Hudson contributed to this article.

Photo credit: KCNA / Stringer

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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