It’s like Richard Nixon going to China, but if Nixon were a moron.
By now, you’ve heard that Donald Trump is meeting with Kim Jong Un by May. You’ve probably also seen the White House walking it back. And then, anonymously, walking it forward again. Things are crazy. Let’s try to sort through it all.
North Korea has been desperate for a state-visit from a sitting U.S. president since at least the Clinton administration. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has said that the United States has not made any concessions, but let’s be clear: THE MEETING IS THE CONCESSION.
Although President Trump seems to be under the impression that the meeting would be to discuss the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the North Koreans haven’t said anything remotely like that.
In fact, all we have from the North Koreans is the secondhand account of a South Korean diplomat of his boozy dinner with Kim Jong Un and an email sent by the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations to Anna Fifield at the Washington Post.
What Kim said, according to the South Korean envoy Chung Eui-yong, was pretty thin gruel: that North Korea would not need nuclear weapons if “military threats towards the North are cleared and the security of its regime is guaranteed.” The email to Fifield didn’t seem to mention it at all, merely offering to explain North Korea’s position to the United States.
In other words, Trump seems to have thought that Kim would meet to give up his nuclear weapons. But for Kim the meeting is about being treated as an equal because of his nuclear and missile programs. After all, Saddam Hussein abandoned his weapons and was invaded and hanged. Muammar al-Qaddafi abandoned his and was toppled with the help of American airpower and dragged out of his SUV to a grisly death. Kim Jong Un, by contrast, kept his programs and now is on the verge of a state visit.
The Trump administration now seems to realize this. And so, despite the president personally teasing the announcement, the White House is now saying that no meeting will occur until North Korea takes “concrete steps” toward denuclearizing — a restatement of its previous position.
So, what’s happening? I suspect we are seeing the downside of both the denuding of State Department expertise and the curious way in which staff Trump’s staff handles him: like a toddler, in Dan Drezner’s famous characterization.
It seems that none of Trump’s aides told him the invitation was nothing special — that North Korea desperately wanted such a visit for more than 20 years. Nor did his staff consider the possibility that North Korea wasn’t offering to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. Maybe none of them realized that.
But perhaps there is a darker reason. Maybe the staff are terrified. We’ve read stories that, on the Iran deal, the goal, among experts in the administration, was to distract the president. Maybe the staff is generally afraid that Trump is going to do something insane on North Korea and latched on to this opportunity to shift the president’s focus from fire and fury to cheeseburger summits. That’s what we’re all doing on the outside — looking at this mess and thinking, well, it’s crazy but it beats the alternative.
That certainly seems to be what the South Koreans have done, embracing a full “sunshine” policy of making nice with North Korea, apparently having decided that Trump is a far greater danger to peace than Kim. It is terrifying how many of us, collectively, are acting out of character in a desperate attempt to manage the threat posed by this lunatic.
But all this effort raises a worry: What if Trump’s aides, South Korea, and the rest of us aren’t managing him, but enabling him? I have long advocated a serious diplomatic outreach to North Korea, including one that accepts — if only tacitly — that North Korea will remain a nuclear power for the foreseeable future. But I don’t think that Trump has embraced this strategy. I think everyone around him just wanted him to think he was winning … something. Look at the statements by both South Korea and Japan heaping fawning praise on the “maximum pressure” strategy for eliciting an invitation from Kim. The diplomats in both countries know that is complete BS. But they’ve decided that flattering Trump is a thing that must be done to allow everyone to get on with our lives.
They may think they are pulling one over on Trump, but what happens when he realizes that Kim Jong Un isn’t giving up the bomb? Do we think the U.S. president is so dumb that he will just be beguiled by tens of thousands of North Koreans packed into a stadium holding up cards that form a picture of his smiling face? Don’t we think that he will, eventually, realize that Kim is getting the better of him? And what happens then? We should be careful that Trump’s childish optimism does not curdle into bitter resentment. In that case 2019 might be more dangerous than 2017.
Because once Trump realizes it, he will look to blame someone. Will Trump blame Rex Tillerson, his embattled secretary of state? In that case, perhaps we’re lucky; the only punishment will be trading Tillerson for Nikki Haley. What if he blames Moon? Will that trigger a crisis in the relationship with Seoul? And then there is my big fear: What if Trump blames Kim Jong Un? What if Trump concludes that the problem was that Kim somehow misled him? That might be very dangerous. It all depends on where the blame lands. And the only thing we know, is that Trump won’t blame himself.