Donald Trump’s supporters claim that Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against North Korea -- using threats, sanctions and military posturing -- has forced Kim Jong Un to come to the negotiating table.
There’s probably a lot of truth in that claim.
However, the opposite point is equally true: From the North Korean perspective, Kim can argue that it was his own threats, nuclear tests and intercontinental missile launches that have forced the Americans to agree to negotiate and to negotiate as equals, a concession that the United States has never made in the past with a regime that it treats as a pariah.
In short, both sides have just cause to see this announced meeting as a victory of sorts, and that’s a good thing. Theoretically, that’s the kind of mutual positive outcome that you can build upon toward a larger deal.
However, I’m highly pessimistic that such a deal can be reached, for a variety of reasons:
1.) I would guess that there’s a 20 percent chance or less that this meeting even occurs in the first place. A bold, off-the-cuff announcement is easy and creates a lot of positive headlines; however, pulling off a summit of this importance in a two-month window with little or no preparatory work is something else entirely, and a lot of things could go wrong. It could fall apart over something as simple as negotiating a site for the meeting, particularly if either side gets cold feet.
UPDATE: It may already be falling apart:
2.) The Trump administration has drawn a bright red line, saying that it will accept nothing less than the complete abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. North Korea lured Trump into accepting this meeting by claiming that such an outcome can be negotiated, but I very much doubt that turns out to be true. I know that if I were in Kim’s situation, I would never surrender the product of such immense national sacrifice and the only thing that gives my regime a credible deterrent. Kim is probably dangling the possibility of nuclear disarmament as bait, just as his father did before him, and just like his father, he will probably snatch it away.
3.) The Trump White House lacks the institutional infrastructure and discipline needed to pull off a deal of this consequence. Look at how it was rolled out: This monumental, spur-of-the-moment decision to meet with Kim was announced before Trump had conferred with or even notified his own secretary of state. It was announced by South Korea, not by Trump’s own staff, and comes at a time when we have no ambassador to South Korea and when our top diplomatic expert on Korea recently retired, joining an exodus of experienced but disillusioned talent from the State Department. These are not hallmarks of a team capable of this kind of accomplishment.
4.) Trump himself got this far by being adept at bluster, posturing and saber-rattling. Advancing from this point forward will require different skills that he shows no signs of possessing. If you’ve watched him try to negotiate with Congress on health care, on guns, on taxes, you’ve watched him wrestle with basic facts and lose. In his eagerness to cut a deal, you’ve watched him leap to accept offers whose consequences he doesn’t comprehend and that horrify his own staff and party. You’ve also watched him make public, dramatic pledges that he has no intention or capacity to keep. Members of Congress have come away dismayed by the combination of utter confidence and complete lack of knowledge or understanding.
Now try to imagine that same man trying to handle sensitive, highly complex and detailed nuclear negotiations with a leader who is equally unpredictable, equally skilled in the art of bluster and perhaps far more shrewd.
I hope I’m wrong, of course. I hope the president has hidden reservoirs of discipline, hard work and flexibility, and that he can set realistic goals and lead a team in achieving them, because the stakes in this are high. It would be a remarkable achievement to bring peace to a region that has defied every previous attempt at peacemaking, and if he pulls this off I will applaud him, thank him heartily and push him for a Nobel Peace Prize.
I just don’t think that’s going to happen.