The idea that President Donald Trump would meet face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is terrifying. But it’s a far better place to be than we were when Trump was talking about starting a war.
For more than a year, the world has been left guessing about the president's North Korea strategy or whether he had one at all. Trump leveled insults at Kim — “Little Rocket Man” — and boasted of the possibility of war — “fire and fury” — while also stating that he might be willing to meet with him. Trump administration officials and surrogates made the case that a preventive war with North Korea may be necessary while Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that a war with North Korea would be “catastrophic” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeatedly voiced support for diplomacy.
News of the possible Trump-Kim summit, while surprising, fits with this pattern. On Thursday, Secretary Tillerson said the United States was “a long ways from negotiations” and, just hours later, President Trump said that he would agree to an unprecedented meeting with Kim.
This is not the sign of some brilliant strategy: It’s the outcome of an impulsive president with little understanding of the substance of the issues.
Trump’s endorsement of diplomacy with North Korea is actually a very positive step towards reducing tensions on the peninsula.
And yet, Trump’s endorsement of diplomacy with North Korea is actually a very positive step towards reducing tensions on the peninsula and addressing the North Korean threat, if the Administration follows though in a less haphazard fashion that holds Kim to real account.
For starters, the proposed summit should be held only if genuine progress on the negotiations is made first. Meetings between heads of state can help kick-start a process, break deadlocks or keep the momentum going. It worked when President Barack Obama called with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to discuss the Iran nuclear deal in 2013, when President Jimmy Carter forged Israeli-Egyptian peace in 1978 or when President Richard Nixon opened relations with China on his visit in 1972. None of those encounters happened in a diplomatic vacuum; the president of the United States doesn't simply hammer out "a deal" of this scale in a few minutes or even hours of face time.
With Trump’s unpredictability, it is imperative that negotiators tee up genuine progress before the two leaders actually meet. Otherwise, Trump risks giving Kim a photo op (in addition to this unexpected concession of a meeting) that he can pocket before returning to his destabilizing behavior. Without some outline of a deal on the table, there is a real risk that Trump — who has no expertise on this issue, has spent years deriding U.S. allies engaged in the region and reportedly has a frighteningly short attention span — will make concessions that would damage U.S. national security, such as removing U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, for the sake of declaring his mission accomplished.
With Trump’s unpredictability, it is imperative that negotiators tee up genuine progress before the two leaders actually meet.
After all, Trump has already given up a meeting with the U.S. president — which every leader of North Korea has coveted — without obtaining anything in return.
That is why the Trump administration must coordinate closely with U.S. allies South Korea and Japan: Part of Kim’s strategy is to divide the United States from its allies, and getting Trump in a room to convince him to make ill-advised concessions is part of that strategy. We all have to be on the same page or diplomacy won’t work.
And, despite all the hand-wringing about the lack of senior appointees at the State Department, there are highly capable officials there with decades of experience in the key jobs who can conduct the difficult negotiations that are about to begin. Trump has made a generally positive step — making unequivocally clear, finally, that he supports diplomacy, with the goal of a summit — but now the tough part begins. He should let professionals test what is achievable in his eventual meeting.
Based on Trump’s history of changing his mind on North Korea (and everything else), it seems particularly unlikely that he will follow any playbook.
Trump, however, must be clear-eyed about what can be achieved for the United States and our allies, and not just for his reputation. Any successful diplomacy will be long, difficult and have a lot of ups and downs. The realistic path forward is a sustained, high-level dialogue that covers the entirety of U.S.-North Korea issues, from the big stuff — curbs on nuclear and missile programs and proliferation — to the smaller, confidence-building measures — like establishing a military-to-military dialogue for crisis communications and renewing searches for the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War left in North Korea.
As negotiations proceed, and if North Korea maintains a freeze on its nuclear and missile tests, there is a chance for incremental progress, opening the path to a potential bigger breakthrough down the road.
Based on Trump’s history of changing his mind on North Korea (and everything else), it seems particularly unlikely that he will follow the above (or any) playbook. But Trump is already receiving praise for this diplomatic move, and he likes that. If he believes that it is in his interest to continue a diplomatic process — one that dangles the possibility of a successful, blockbuster Trump-Kim meeting — then progress is possible.
Of course, this dynamic cuts both ways: There is a very real danger that Trump wants a "win" from this unprecedented summit meeting so badly that he will give away the farm (America’s and South Korea’s) in order to get it.
While Trump’s erratic nature makes this gambit incredibly dangerous, the main stumbling block remains whether North Korea ready to make a deal and live up to it. We should all cautiously embrace this opportunity to find out.
Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.