Elephants in the Room
Three Serious Problems With a Trump-Kim Meeting
It's not good if only one of the two participants knows what he's doing.
When Donald Trump said as a presidential candidate in May 2016 that he “would have no problem speaking to” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, I wrote for Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog on what a bad idea that would be. The idea of an American president meeting with Kim Jong Un has not ripened with age. Here are three reminders why:
- It is morally distasteful. Kim Jong Un presides over the most horrific regime on the planet, with tens of thousands languishing in gulags and many millions suffering systematic repression. Comparisons being made to Nixon’s meeting with Mao or FDR’s meetings with Stalin are inapt. In the Second World War we needed Soviet manpower to defeat Hitler and in the third decade of the Cold War we needed Chinese manpower to offset the Soviets’ growing military advantage in Europe and the Far East. These were both necessary and achievable aims that aligned with Soviet and then Chinese interests and helped to defeat larger evils. All we need from North Korea is nuclear disarmament, which the regime has demonstrated it has no intention of putting on the table. The fact that even Chinese President Xi Jinping finds Kim Jong Un too distasteful to meet should tell us something.
- It fits North Korean long-term objectives, not U.S. goals. President Trump brags that no previous president was bold enough to meet with a North Korean leader — but this was not for lack of trying by Pyongyang, which almost lured Bill Clinton to visit in 2000 and made several backchannel overtures to George W. Bush. The North’s objective since the 1990s has been to demonstrate that nuclear weapons have forced American presidents to acknowledge the regime’s legitimacy. Clinton almost fell for it in 2000. George Bush never came close. Now an American president has been delivered. Well played, Pyongyang.
- Kim Jong Un will know exactly what he’s doing… The prospect of a Trump-Kim meeting would be less concerning if the president showed more command of the facts on the Korean Peninsula. His stump speeches declaring that sanctions have led Kim to cry uncle and negotiate denuclearization are based on generous interpretations of what the South Korean national security advisor thinks he heard in Pyongyang and not anything coming out of the North Korean regime itself, which remains wedded to nuclear weapons. The administration deserves major credit for the sanctions and pressure campaign it has organized, and hopefully Vice President Mike Pence’s statements that the pressure campaign will continue unabated until there are concrete steps at denuclearization will carry the day. But Kim could win a big victory simply by convincing the president that Pyongyang would be willing to discuss denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula if the United States first negotiates a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. The North’s real intent behind this seemingly constructive move has always been to set the stage for dismantlement of the 1950 U.N. Security Council mandate, the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command on the peninsula, and the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea (since that would be part of any North Korean definition of “denuclearization” of the peninsula). Beijing, Moscow, and certain officials on the political left in Seoul would push this agenda hard, while conservatives in Seoul and U.S. allies more broadly would be dismayed. There are half a dozen other similar traps in negotiating with Pyongyang. North Korean leaders have decades of experience trying to manipulate the nuanced arrangements associated with the UNSC mandate and U.S. alliances in Asia; so do some U.S. diplomats, but they will not likely be at center stage.
Perhaps the Trump-Kim meeting will yield concrete North Korean steps toward disarmament, but I do not know a single experienced North Korea-policy veteran who thinks that is likely. Or perhaps the Trump-Kim meeting will go the way of the president’s promised military parade: modified by calmer heads in the administration into a series of lower-level preparatory meetings that do no harm. In either case, let’s hope the theater does not distract those in the administration who are doing the necessary work of containing and deterring North Korea, because we are very likely to have to rely on those strategies for a while.