SINGAPORE — President Donald Trump is rolling the dice as he walks into a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un here Tuesday: He could either show his peace-through-strength model can work on a notorious dictator — or he could fall flat on his face on the world stage.
The odds are he’ll land somewhere in between.
The summit between “The Donald” and “Little Rocket Man” — the nickname Trump gave the nuclear-armed Kim in more bellicose times — could result in anything from a propaganda tool for the North Korean leader to the start of a long-term process that could see the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a formal end to the war between the North and South, and even the removal of U.S. troops from the region.
So there’s a lot at stake.
And that may help explain why Trump has simultaneously tightened carrot-and-stick pressure on Kim while starting to lower expectations for what the first meeting can realistically produce.
“I think the minimum would be a relationship,” Trump said of what he hopes to get out of his sit-down with Kim. “We’d start at least a dialogue.”
The White House said Monday that talks “have moved more quickly than expected” and that Trump will hold a series of meetings with Kim — and a press conference — before departing Singapore earlier than expected on Tuesday.
And yet Trump is also subtly rattling his saber, trying to convince Kim that his hold on power will be more secure if North Korea is cutting deals with the West than if it remains isolated and continues to develop a nuclear program that is viewed as a threat to both the U.S. and American allies.
This summit is a “one-time shot” for Kim to begin a diplomatic process, Trump said Saturday.
“I feel that Kim Jong Un wants to do something great for his people, and he has that opportunity,” Trump said. “He won’t have that opportunity again. It’s never going to be there.”
The choice facing Kim is whether to give up his nuclear capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief and possibly other concessions from the U.S. or stay on his current course and risk possible U.S. military action against his regime.
The basic formula for a deal has existed for decades, but North Korea has reneged on past nonproliferation agreements. Now, the question is whether Kim wants to — and can — break from the past.
“It could conceivably work,” said one Obama administration foreign policy aide. “It is unlikely, but possible, that Kim is prepared to move in a dramatically different direction. And making him face the fundamental question squarely is the right strategy.”
The “best barometer” for Kim’s seriousness, this person said, is his “level of specificity” he offers in terms of the timing and sequence of steps forward. “The less detailed he is, the more likely this is a new version of the same old playbook.”
It was the threat of American force that got Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi to give up his nuclear program during President George W. Bush’s administration. National security adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence infuriated Pyongyang by referring to the “Libya model” of American diplomacy because Gadhafi ended up dead within a decade.
The North Koreans’ response to the remarks — including an attack on Pence — helped push Trump toward canceling the summit before he put it back on the table.
The other model that Kim will surely consider is the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. That was cut by President Barack Obama, and Trump withdrew from it.
Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, said Trump will have to “manage a few obstacles” — including convincing Kim that the U.S. won’t renege on a deal like it did on the Iran pact.
Trump will also have to ride herd on Bolton and other foreign policy aides who “can kill any progress during the process phase,” and manage a relationship with Kim, Nasr said. That may be a lot to expect from a president who has little diplomatic experience and who is giving Kim a meeting at the front end — rather than the back end — of the negotiating process.
“We would like to have Kim turn from a despot to a benevolent leader,” said Ellen Tauscher, who was the State Department’s undersecretary for arms control at the start of the Obama administration. “But we’re going about this in a completely unconventional way without any real preparation — and frankly, we’re doing it backwards.”
She said she’s worried about Trump’s boast that he’ll know immediately whether he can come to an agreement with Kim.
“This isn’t about the pheromones and in that 10 seconds they lock eyes that he can decide whether or not they can negotiate something,” she said. “That is a fantasy. And, frankly, it’s an embarrassing tell to how little he knows.”