Recently president Trump said he would be willing to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea. Trump made this statement after it was proposed during a meeting between North and South Korea. The announcement of the meeting surprised many people in both Trump’s own administration and governments around the world. If the meeting takes place this will be the first time a sitting president has met one-on-one with a North Korean leader since the armistice was signed in 1953.
The initial reaction from most news outlets and think-tanks was very critical and the majority thought the summit would be a significant and dangerous mistake. Five days have passed and with some more measured and thoughtful analysis the consensus is still that the summit is a bad idea and could be very dangerous. Even those who oppose Trump is almost every way don’t want to see him fail at such an important meeting, but it’s hard to see an upside when there are so many potential down sides.
One of the downsides is that the meeting lends more legitimacy and prestige to the North Korean government. The simple fact that the United States is willing to have a unilateral meeting with North Korea increases their national standing. It can also be used a major propaganda tool in North for many years to come. Although the US has called for some concessions from the North Koreans as a prerequisite to any meeting, there are many other issues with North Korean on the humanitarian front that cannot be overlooked. These humanitarian issues pose a public relations problem when agreeing to sit down with their leader.
North Korea has done similar things in the past with no results. This seems to be the cycle of North Korean and US relations: we impose strict sanctions that begin to take a toll on the lives of North Koreans; they agree to a non-aggression or disarmament treaty or other similar agreement and the sanctions are lifted; they then lie about complying and are eventually caught not abiding by the treaty. The last and most well-known example of this is from 1994 with the “agreed framework.” The US supplied them “proliferation resistant” light water reactors in exchange for a halt to all nuclear weapons research and progress. North Korea did the exact opposite of what they promised during the treaty and now have an ever growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are a part of the fabric of North Korean life and national identity. I cannot imagine a scenario where Kim would be willing to even consider giving them up. His own military leaders might even turn on him if he were to do such a thing.
The North Koreans have everything to gain from the scenario and practically nothing to lose. The US on the other hand is in the exact opposite situation, with only one goal that is extremely unlikely to ever being fulfilled and a slew of negative outcomes that would further damage the US’s reputation and influence in the region. By stating explicitly that the only outcome acceptable to the US is North Korea’s complete denuclearization they have let little if any room for negotiating or diplomacy. Trump has backed himself into a corner with seemingly little chance of ever getting out.
Although Trump tweeted that China and Japan were excited about this development, it seems very unlikely that either China or Japan would view this development as positive. The meeting was announced unexpectedly, and neither country was given time to prepare for this or make their concerns known. While US and Japanese relations may be strong, the Japanese government has intimated that they do not trust Trump to do what’s in their best interest or to accurately express or address their concerns. Japan is also at odds with South Korea over their handling of the most recent meeting with North Korean officials. This dynamic between these two allies will be very important going into any meeting between Trump and Kim.
China has a vested interest in keeping any deal from going through since North Korea acts a buffer and challenge to the US’s authority in the region. Though China doesn’t want to see a war break out on their border, it is in their country’s interests to keep North Korea as a distraction and resource drain on the US. Russia also borders North Korea and presumably has a similar interest in furthering the use of North Korea as a distraction.
What is the South Korean goal in all of this? This is something that very directly impacts their lives, yet it seems that we too often discuss actions on the peninsula without thought for how it would impact them. The “bloody nose” strategy for instance could have major impact on South Korea if the North were to retaliate. The US would be under very little danger in the case of such retaliations, and we talk about that strategy with little concern for the South Koreans. The South Korean president has scheduled a meeting with Kim for the end of April. The US and Japan should have a much better idea of what their goals are following that meeting.
The last factor is Trump himself. He is unpredictable, rude, bold, disjointed, bellicose, tactless, and one of the worst statesmen to ever hold the title of president. Many supporters of his will always point to the fact that Trump is a business man and a shrewd negotiator. Thus far we have yet to see those skills be put on display in any political arena. While he may be good at business dealings – though there is little evidence to support this position – he is far less successful at political dealings and even less so in the international realm. His particular brand of diplomacy has weakened US soft power abroad in a way that hasn’t been seen before.
Trump lacks basic diplomacy skills when dealing with his allies, much less rival nations. From Trump’s twitter rants to his dangerous, off the cuff sabre rattling comments, Trump has shown a lack of impulse control when threatened or made to feel inferior in even the slightest way. In a face to face meeting with an authoritarian dictator such as Kim, there is a high likelihood that one or both men will feel insulted and engage in fiery and bellicose rhetoric. This sort of rhetoric is easily dismissed when it’s done via North Korean propaganda or Twitter but it’s much different when it’s conducted face to face. I don’t think either nation is shortsighted enough to let any major conflict arise from a failed meeting, but it will damage the US’s reputation and weaken our soft power and influence throughout the world even more than it already has been.
As I was writing this President Trump fired his secretary of state and identified current CIA head Mike Pompeo to head the state department. This is a major turn of events that could completely reshape the US strategy, if there ever was a coherent strategy, on North Korea. There hasn’t been any ground breaking news as far as Pompeo’s views on North Korea or what he would like to see this meeting accomplish, but this major shake up the state department just a couple of months before an extremely important meeting with North Korea is definitely cause for concern.
Ivanka Trump has been scheduled to meet with South Korean officials concerning this visit as well. Her complete lack of diplomatic skill makes her a poor choice to hold such high levels talks with the South Koreans. The South Koreans are facilitating and organizing this meeting, and the specifics are still unknown. If South Korea isn’t being completely open and honest and has a hidden agenda, then Ivanka is a very dangerous person to have be the mouthpiece for the US. She has little experience in the region and as a diplomat and could very easily be taken advantage of by an experienced South Korean diplomat.
This will be a very interesting topic to pay attention to as time moves forward. I’m inclined to think that the meeting will never take place because Trump and his team will set up some sort of pre-condition that allows them to back out of the deal without losing face. This allows Trump to placate his base right now and then back out of the deal without any negative effects further down the road. I personally hope this meeting never occurs. I would feel the same no matter who the president is. The same conditions apply as far as the few potential positive outcomes and numerous negative outcomes. There is a very good reason why no other sitting president has ever agreed to a one-on-one meeting with North Korea.