It’s infinitely better that North Korea and the United States exchange words rather than missiles.
Yet President Donald Trump’s decision to meet Kim Jong Un strikes me as a dangerous gamble and a bad idea. I’m afraid that North Korea may be playing Trump, and that in turn Trump may be playing us.
I fear that Trump is being played because at the outset, apparently in exchange for nothing clear-cut, he has agreed to give North Korea what it has long craved: the respect and legitimacy that comes from the North Korean leader standing as an equal beside the American president. And I worry that we in the media and the public are being played because this is a way for Trump to change the subject from a Russia investigation and a porn actress to himself as Great Peacemaker.
To be clear, I’m all for negotiations. Ever since I began covering North Korea in the 1980s, I’ve favored direct talks between the United States and North Korea, and I’ve called on Trump to send emissaries to meet Kim Jong Un.
But direct talks should be conducted by seasoned diplomats, offering an eventual summit meeting only as a carrot at the end of the process — and only if the summit serves some purpose higher than changing the headlines in the U.S. and legitimizing Kim’s regime abroad. A face-to-face should advance the interests of two countries, not just two leaders.
There’s a misperception that the North Koreans’ offer of a direct meeting is a grand concession. Not at all. It’s something they’ve been seeking for decades, but past presidents refused.
So a summit constitutes a huge gift to Kim, and it’s puzzling that our Great Dealmaker should give up so much right off the bat.
Frankly, another fear about a Trump-Kim summit is that our president will shun advice from aides and will impetuously agree over dinner to some harebrained scheme to get a deal. (“Withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and Okinawa? No problem, if you’ll build a wall for me.”) Indeed, it seems he jumped on the idea without consulting important aides, who were left scrambling to praise the kind of talks that the administration previously had condemned.
Still, it’s genuinely encouraging that Kim doesn’t object to the U.S. resuming military exercises and that he seems willing to suspend missile and nuclear tests. Those are real concessions, although he apparently is not suspending production of nuclear materials or missiles; we should insist on that as well.
If Kim will halt testing, maybe there’s a grand bargain to be achieved. It would involve North Korea giving up its nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. ending sanctions and normalizing relations, with some commitments from North Korea on human rights as well. This would be a tremendous achievement that would make the world safer, but verification would be a huge challenge and would require short-notice inspection visits to military sites.
Most experts are extremely skeptical that Kim will agree to a bargain in which he verifiably gives up nuclear weapons. The White House says Kim has committed to denuclearize, but that may be on unacceptable terms that North Korea has previously proposed: You Americans end your alliance with South Korea and pull your troops, and we’ll proceed with denuclearization (presumably on a nonverifiable basis). And while the White House says the U.S. made no concessions, the summit is itself the concession.
Does Trump get credit for pushing the North Koreans to make concessions such as the suspension of testing? I think he probably does, in two respects.
First, Trump raised the economic pressure on North Korea with additional sanctions and extra support from China, and the pain was visible when I visited North Korea in September. Kim has made rising living standards a hallmark of his leadership, and sanctions have threatened that pillar of his legitimacy.
Second, Trump’s talk about military strikes may or may not have rattled North Korea, but it certainly horrified South Korea. The upshot was South Korea’s deft diplomatic outreach to North Korea, leading to the North Korean promise to suspend testing.
So give Trump’s approach some credit. Likewise, it’s very healthy that he’s pivoted from his previous position that “talking is not the answer.” He’s right this time, that talking may actually be part of the answer — even if a summit is the wrong way to begin.
One reason for skepticism is that nobody has ever made money betting on North Korean moderation or denuclearization. And a summit raises the stakes, so a failure could trigger angry new escalations on each side, leaving us worse off than where we were when we started.
Perhaps I’m wrong: A “North Korea expert” is an oxymoron, and traditional diplomacy in the past certainly hasn’t succeeded. For all the uncertainties, we do have a two-month reprieve from the threat of nuclear war.
One can now envision a path forward for the U.S. and North Korea — even if it means we also worry that the path dead ends at a precipice. At least for the time being, we can look forward to talks instead of tanks.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service