Trump and Kim Play Nuclear Poker
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Trump and Kim Play Nuclear Poker

‘What Could Go Wrong Putting the World’s Two Most Impulsive, Ego-Centric Leaders in the Same Room?’

The impromptu White House driveway announcement by a South Korean envoy that Trump had accepted a personal sit-down with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un was momentarily heart-stopping.

In what The New York Times labeled a “breathtaking gamble,” Trump agreed to meet with Kim by May at a place yet to be determined on an agenda yet to be decided with no particular items having been settled ahead of time. Hey, Mar-a-Lago is nice that time of year, and, what could go wrong with putting the world’s two most impulsive, ego-centric, nuclear-equipped leaders in the same room?

I hope the door locks from the outside.

On its face, it is a remarkable development. This North Korean leader has been unduly provocative and downright dangerous; this president unduly insulting and bullying. Can they find the missing formula for a peaceful accord? It’s more than surprising that they will try.

As The Times and every other media outlet noted, “No sitting American president has ever met a North Korean leader, and Mr. Trump himself has repeatedly vowed that he would not commit the error of his predecessors by being drawn into a protracted negotiation, in which North Korea extracted concessions from the United States but held on to key elements of its nuclear program.”

Apparently, the announcement—Trump sent envoy Chung Eui-yong, who carried the invitation, outside to tell reporters—baffled White House staff who have been building dossiers of increasingly heavy-handed sanctions augmented with recordings of Trump calling Kim “Little Rocket Man” rather than thinking through a negotiating strategy.

Fortunately, we have the president’s total thinking in a tweet: “Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”

See, it’s easy. Like gun control.

Actually, having just been worrying about school safety, Trump could apply the same thinking to North Korea.

As with school shootings, the problem is not an excess of guns, it is not having hardened schools with armed teachers and a mental health system that allows for the confinement of anyone who seems a little off. So, in the Korean peninsula, the problem should not be nukes, but the lack of hardened countries within range of increasingly more lethal intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Maybe, just maybe, this is another publicity stunt by both Trump and Kim. They are more alike than not. Both are brandishing nuclear weapons with increasingly harsh language and insults; both claim to be populists while working to take away healthcare and government spending on, say, food; both have ridiculous haircuts.

Both also share a desire for the dramatic, for the ultimate public relations gesture. This kind of meeting would pretty much top any such list of gestures.

Maybe, just maybe, they will be able to talk about negotiation rather than actually negotiating. I can’t imagine that Trump wants to make concessions of any substantive kind to Kim; the furthest he will go will be to offer to take away sanctions in return for denuclearization. And Kim? He wants a North Korea First program that will Make Korea Great Again.

Actually, no one really knows what North Korea wants, but we’ve been led to believe that they want recognition as a player, as a nuclear state, and would like to remove American troops from South Korea and take steps toward reunification. The U.S. goals are, well, different and close to diametrically opposed.

We’ve not seen Artist of the Deal Trump actually successfully negotiate much of any policies even in this country, to say nothing of dealing with a belligerent foe.

So, while even as we are setting ourselves up for some bold, courageous, imaginative personality-based “win” by Trump, please let’s remember that there are a million ways for this entreaty to sour before there is any kind of sit-down, never mind an agreement of any substance.

Still, let’s give Trump the Disrupter some credit for imagining a diplomatic coup beyond belief. Perhaps Kim and Trump would consider posing for the Nobel Peace Prize. But if our president is serious, why did he instruct Vice President Mike Pence to ignore Kim’s sister, envoy to the Olympic Games, who was seated a few feet away? Why has he insisted on personal insults for the North Korean leader, even in talking with the United Nations?

The list of obstacles seems pretty long. We don’t have an ambassador in South Korea. The announcement glossed over that South Korea would have to be in the room at the same time, and that China, Japan and other nations have substantial interests in the outcome of any talks. Let’s just skip over the fact that diplomacy requires a lot of spade work to arrive at a substantial agreement and this White House has never been good about thinking things through.

Even this week, First Son-In-Law Jared Kushner is in Mexico to meet with that nation’s president without including the U.S. ambassador in the meetings.

Oh, and remember that North Korea has lied plenty of times before.

Some analysts immediately suggested that Kim is suddenly interested in talks because the sanctions are beginning to hurt and because he is genuinely afraid of U.S. military strikes. Trump has warned that time is running out on non-military options.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, in Ethiopia, urged caution about any talks, despite what he described as “potentially positive signals coming from North Korea. . . In terms of direct talks with the United States, and you asked negotiations, we’re a long way from negotiations; we just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it.”

The Times said: “The State Department’s chief North Korea negotiator, Joseph Yun, recently announced his departure from the Foreign Service. The White House also scotched a plan to nominate another experienced negotiator, Victor Cha, as ambassador to Seoul. North Korea, by contrast, appears to have planned its diplomatic overture methodically, starting with Mr. Kim’s conciliatory message toward the South in his New Year’s Day address, and continuing through the North’s charm offensive during the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.”

I’m eager to see this work out, but my skepticism warns me not to get my, and American, hopes too high for any real meeting, for any real negotiation, for any real end to hostilities.

March 9, 2018