North Korea has been seeking a one-on-one meeting between its supreme leader and the U.S. president for more than two decades. And it isn’t difficult to understand why: For the leader of the world’s most powerful country to sit down with his North Korean counterpart would be to bestow an aura of legitimacy and international importance on the rogue state’s regime.
For this very reason, Donald Trump’s immediate predecessors declined to honor North Korea’s request, absent sweeping concessions that Pyongyang proved unwilling to make. Our current president, however, (reportedly) accepted Kim Jong-un’s invitation on a whim, and without setting any significant preconditions.
His White House proceeded to leak word that Trump viewed securing a deal with North Korea to be his “great man of history” moment — and that the administration’s staffers were already fantasizing about the Nobel Peace Prize that the president might win for forging such a historic agreement.
Now, one could argue that this is an example of Trump using his superhuman narcissism for good. Perhaps, previous American presidents had been too deferential to D.C. conventional wisdom on the Korean conflict — while Trump, following his lust for personal glory instead of the foreign policy Establishment’s advice, was making a diplomatic concession that would genuinely bolster the cause of world peace.
After all, Trump’s acceptance of the summit was followed by a productive meeting between Kim and South Korean president Moon Jae-in; Pyongyang’s release of three American prisoners; and North Korea’s announcement of a plan to demolish its nuclear testing site.
But one could also argue that Trump is simply getting played. In recent days, North Korea has abruptly recast a summit with the American president as kind of favor to the United States — one that entitles them to concessions up-front. Earlier this week, Pyongyang suspended talks with South Korea, in protest of a scheduled joint-military exercise between the American and South Korean air forces. Hours later, Kim threatened to cancel his summit with Trump unless the U.S. indicated that it had no interest in coercing the regime into “unilateral nuclear abandonment,” as national security adviser John Bolton had implied.
Trump responded Thursday by reassuring Kim that the U.S. would provide “very strong” protections to his totalitarian regime, should he agree to a disarmament deal. And on Friday, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the U.S. had canceled the military exercise that had offended Pyongyang.
The latter move came at the urging of Seoul, which asked not to participate, so as to avoid generating tensions that could undermine the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim.
Again: One could argue that the America’s aberrantly conciliatory posture toward North Korea is a good thing. It isn’t all that unreasonable for Kim to ask the United States not to engage in dress rehearsals for war against his country; nor is it hard to understand why Pyongyang might take exception to John Bolton suggesting that Trump would demand it pursue the “Libya model” of nuclear disarmament.
But it remains the case that our deal-maker-in-chief has already managed to take what Pyongyang once viewed as a great concession (a summit with the U.S. president), and turned it into an ostensible source of leverage for his North Korean counterpart.