President Trump is making a serious roll of the dice with his decision to meet face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump would be the first U.S. president to ever meet with a leader of North Korea, and success in the negotiations — if the Korean peninsula was denuclearized — would be a tremendous, historic achievement.
At the same time, there’s little reason to believe Kim has actually changed his mind about nuclear weapons when he’s on the verge of achieving his goal of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
While GOP lawmakers said Kim’s offering of a meeting was proof that Trump’s policies are having some success, they also urged caution going forward.
In Friday’s press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared to give the administration wiggle room to cancel the meeting, attaching conditions that were not announced Thursday night.
“We’re not going to have this meeting take place until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea,” Sanders said. “We’ve accepted the invitation to talk based on them following through with concrete actions on the promises that they’ve made.”
That followed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ’s comments Friday morning seeking to make a distinction between talks and negotiations. On Thursday, Tillerson, who is traveling in Africa, said “we’re a long ways from negotiations” hours before the announcement was made.
“President Trump has said for some time that he was open to talks and he would willingly meet with Kim Jong Un when conditions were right and the time was right,” Tillerson said Friday in Djibouti. “And I think in the president’s judgment, that time has arrived now. So there’s no — in my comments yesterday, I was indicating comments about negotiations, but we’ve been open for talks for some time.”
Trump sees himself as the ultimate deal-maker. An agreement with Kim in which North Korea abandoned its nuclear ambitions would deliver an achievement that multiple presidents have failed to reach.
“It’s really a high-stakes poker game, and you can either win big or perhaps get taken to the cleaners,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA division chief for the Koreas who is now at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said both Trump and Kim risk looking foolish if they don’t walk away with something.
“There’s something that’s going to be achieved if they get together or it’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s too much of a risk for both sides.”
North Korea has negotiated with the United States before, only to walk away once winning sanctions relief and other concessions.
It’s a pitfall lawmakers have been reminding Trump about since Thursday’s announcement.
“We can pursue diplomacy as we keep applying pressure ounce by ounce,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “Remember, North Korean regimes have repeatedly used talks and empty promises to extract concessions and buy time. North Korea uses this to advance its nuclear and missile programs. We’ve got to break this cycle.”
Administration officials insist Trump will not fall into that trap.
“The North Koreans are coming to the table despite the United States making zero concessions and, in close coordination with our allies, we have consistently increased the pressure on the Kim regime,” Vice President Pence said in a statement Friday. “Our resolve is undeterred and our policy remains the same: all sanctions remain in place and the maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes concrete, permanent, and verifiable steps to end their nuclear program.”
Kazianis said the meeting could be a good idea if three conditions are true. The first is that the meeting should not take place in North Korea. Kazianis suggested having it at the demilitarized zone between the Koreas.
Second, he said, the maximum pressure campaign should continue. And third, joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises should go on as planned.
Still, he said, Kim will probably get at least a little propaganda victory just by meeting with Trump.
“He’s going to get some great photo ops, but when history calls, you’ve got to answer the bell,” Kazianis said.
Klingner, though, said the meeting risks giving Kim the same sort of the propaganda win the Trump administration was worried about him getting during the North Korean delegation’s “charm offensive” at the Winter Olympics.
Trump, he said, “impetuously and prematurely” accepted the invitation without getting concessions from Kim, such as progress on freeing the three Americans detained in North Korea or evidence of Kim’s sincerity in denuclearizing.
“If the first time a president meets with the North Koreans is the highest coin in the diplomatic realm, you don’t want to spend that too quickly,” he said.
It’s possible Trump’s business acumen could yield positive results, Klingner said. But the situation reminded him of the arguments in favor of sending former President Clinton to meet with Kim Jong Il in 2000 — that the force of his personality would cause Kim to buckle. The foreign policy establishment’s majority view that that would be a bad idea won out, and Clinton never met with the leader while in office.
To mitigate risk now that the meeting has been agreed to, Klingner said, U.S. and North Korean officials need extensive discussions to agree to parameters for the summit.
But even that could run into pitfalls.
“Even if you have that kind of detail planned … someone can throw out the playbook as soon as they walk into the room,” Klingner said. “Trump may not abide by it. Supporters will say that’s what makes him effective.”