If you had to pick a word that best describes the Trump presidency so far, it might be “surreal.” And few developments affirm that more than news that President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un plan to meet for talks this spring. Supposedly they’ll discuss prospects for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Yes, “Little Rocket Man” and an American president whom Kim once referred to as a “dotard” in the same room, with a potential to make history.
Fast-forward a few years: Trump and Kim meet again, this time in Oslo to jointly accept their Nobel Peace Prize? Surreal indeed. Fantasy? For now, yes, of course.
Nevertheless, two leaders widely seen as volatile, self-absorbed and belligerent have agreed to do something no other sitting American president and North Korean leader ever have done — sit face-to-face and talk seriously about nukes. As a carrot, Kim has dangled a commitment to halt nuclear and missile testing ahead of the talks, which are slated for the end of May.
Why now? It may be that Kim feels the vise of amped-up economic sanctions and sees in Trump an American leader who, unlike his predecessors, has been exceedingly blunt with threats to “totally destroy” North Korea. Equally likely, however, is Kim’s calculation that Trump would agree to a meeting because, well, he’s Trump: a president supremely confident in his negotiating skills, a leader with the hubris to think he can get done what other presidents couldn’t, and to do it the Trump way — on his own. Stand down, stuffy diplomats.
Kim also comes to the table with a hand that his father and grandfather didn’t have: missiles capped with nuclear warheads. His predecessors also sought newfound legitimacy through a meeting with an American president, but they didn’t have the arsenal that Kim now has. Like his father and grandfather, Kim yearns to be perceived as a leader on equal footing with the American commander-in-chief. What better way to get there than a sit-down with Trump?
Trump no doubt will go into the meeting with visions of himself at the podium in Oslo. Cue the skepticism, not only of that scene but of the here and now. While the meeting would be unprecedented, any flirtatious Pyongyang offer to denuclearize isn’t. In 2005, North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons program during the “six-party talks.” Three years later, Pyongyang restarted its program.
The hasty timetable could also prove counterproductive. The administration has just two months to prepare. The State Department’s chief North Korea negotiator, Joseph Yun, is on his way out, and the administration has balked at nominating another experienced negotiator, Victor Cha, the ambassador to South Korea, the New York Times reported.
None of that may matter to Trump, with his penchant for winging it. But his assent to a meeting is indeed a gamble, and the stakes couldn’t be much higher. Trump has already made it clear that the only acceptable outcome is denuclearization. Will Kim be willing to relinquish the very nuclear weapons that give him so much clout? If talks end and Trump doesn’t get what he wants, Kim will walk away with strengthened legitimacy — and a nuclear weapons program with American cities as primary targets. Trump will walk away boasting of his reasonableness in meeting with Kim. That could give him flexibility for whatever comes in the future — such as a pre-emptive U.S. strike if North Korea becomes more menacing.
Trump crafted a campaign persona as the quintessential dealmaker. Up until now, his foreign-policy track record says otherwise. Meeting with Kim gives him a chance to prove his critics wrong. We hope he can. The likely alternative is a return to the threat of nuclear war.