The news that President Donald J. Trump would meet with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un in May struck like a veritable thunderbolt on an otherwise unsuspecting day. Immediately, the administration’s taunting and threatening of Kim were credited with precipitating this seeming diplomatic triumph. “Fire and fury” and “Little Rocket Man” may have persuaded the other side to come to the table. Or perhaps neither was relevant.
Of course, any possible opportunity must be seized. It is easy to criticize the peevishly short time window–how long did it take Henry Kissinger’s secret diplomacy before Richard Nixon went to China–and seeming absence of America Korean experts to ensure that any meeting was well prepared in advance. Hence, hope may be the operative word.
Why the president acted so quickly after the visit of South Korea’s national security advisor to the White House to announce this stunning development directly to the press room may be as interesting as what follows. Given the president’s long and often fraught history in real estate when last second “hail marys” were all that stood between disaster and survival, perhaps those experiences were at play. The week could not have been much worse.
The seedy Stormy Daniels affair sprouted new wings with the inadvertent announcement by the White House press secretary that the president had won an arbitration case against the actress. The tariffs imposed on steel and aluminium provoked angry responses within the Republican Party and with some of our closest allies namely Japan who would be affected. Any history student will know that tariffs do not work.
A breakthrough could be achieved, namely, moving towards a peace treaty that finally puts an end to the Korean War armistice that has been in place since July 1953 or steps to de-militarize the peninsula. One outcome does seem improbable if not impossible-North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons
Presented the opportunity for something as dramatic as a meeting with Kim, it should be no surprise that Mr. Trump leapt at it for many reasons especially given his preference for disruption. This was pure Trump–no warning or seeming coordination with his cabinet-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was caught unaware–and a reality show-like run out. A further benefit was that the bombshell Korean meeting drained the oxygen from these other media firestorms. As in past real estate deals, for the moment, the president granted himself a temporary respite.
How might this play out? First, for many reasons, no meeting may take place or be deferred. Second, the meeting could simply be a first step in a much longer negotiation process agreed to by the two leaders. Third, a breakthrough could be achieved namely, moving towards a peace treaty that finally puts an end to the Korean War armistice that has been in place since July 1953 or steps to de-militarize the peninsula. One outcome does seem improbable if not impossible-North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang consented to a meeting with the American president followed rather clever Olympics diplomacy by South Korea inviting North Korean participation. North Korea has always wanted meetings with sitting presidents–Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton visited after leaving office. Some will argue that sanctions and Chinese pressure, along with strong American rhetoric, were the forcing functions.
Those with better understanding of the Korean culture and the Kim family mindset would argue that now that North Korea believes it has achieved or soon will the capability to threaten the U.S. with nuclear intercontinental weapons, it has gained some degree of parity and confidence vis a vis Washington and will be negotiating from a position of strength. At this point, what other incentives South Korea or China may have offered Kim have not been made public if any were. Unfortunately, with no ambassador in Seoul and the resignation of the lead American negotiator, it is worrisome that Washington may not have sufficient experience to ensure that talks will produce some positive results.
A meeting that leads nowhere or ends badly, will be worse than having no meeting at all. Mr. Trump probably feels that his negotiating skills will impress and even overwhelm a relatively immature and youthful protagonist. But arrogance and ego, both of which the president possesses in abundance, can be fatal.
Franklin Roosevelt honestly believed that by force of his personality Joseph Stalin would be sufficiently charmed to accept America’s views at Yalta. FDR could not have been more wrong. Because too often Kim has been described as irrational and his physical appearance demeaned, he can be underestimated. That too would be a very bad error. Finally, before leaving for this visit if it does indeed take place, the president should be briefed at length on North Korean negotiating styles and history going all the way back to the talks at Panmunjom that ultimately led to a truce in 1953.
We do not want this president to repeat the errors of FDR with Stalin this time around.
Harlan Ullman served as Senior Advisor for Supreme Allied Commander Europe for twelve years and currently at the Atlantic Council and chairs two private companies. His latest book is Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts and he can be reached @harlankullman
Published in Daily Times, March 12th 2018.