Sometimes it takes an outsider, unburdened by the stifling conventions and preconceptions that impede the practice of diplomacy, to see the obvious. Trump is that outsider. Sometimes Trump’s distance from diplomacy’s precepts allows him to see its hobgoblins as they are. That was the case when his administration threw away custom by deciding again to consign North Korea to the list of state terror sponsors, to institute a renewed sanctions regime targeting Iran, and to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The risks that professional diplomats feared would result from these maneuvers never materialized, and only a risk-prone executive could have achieved these successes. Trump’s particular facility is not without its dangers. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason. Donald Trump’s decision to sit down with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un at Pyongyang’s request, for example, is fraught with more potential for risk than reward.
On Thursday night, President Trump revealed he had received a letter from the North Korean despot via a South Korean intermediary requesting a meeting with the president, and he had accepted. This marks a dramatic departure from past practice. North Korea’s leaders have long sought to achieve the prestige associated with being perceived as a peer of the United States—a status that is conveyed through a bilateral sit-down between the principals of these two nations—but no American president has given this murderous regime that satisfaction. Not until today.
Trump’s defenders insist this isn’t what it looks like. This is not the fulfillment of Barack Obama’s never-realized 2007 pledge to sit down with America’s enemies absent preconditions because North Korea has, in fact, agreed to preconditions. It will freeze its missile testing and will not respond to America’s planned military exercises with South Korea. China has put pressure on the North to halt missile tests to facilitate talks, and this pressure has worked. Pyongyang signaled its intention to put a moratorium on missile tests earlier this week, but it had not tested a new missile since November 29. North Korea does not and never will have a veto over how America conducts affairs with its allies, so the notion that it would or would not respond to military exercises means nothing. But in response to these modest overtures, North Korea has won a propaganda victory they’ve sought for nearly a quarter century.
This arrangement is already a lopsided one in North Korea’s favor, and the stakes only get higher from here. This is the big one; it’s a gambit that could pay off, but the United States only gets one shot at this. If it fails, America’s losses will not be minimal.
This meeting between the leader of the free world and the criminal proprietor of the world’s largest open-air prison might produce a breakthrough. Trump might convince Kim to agree to the permanent and verifiable dismantling of his nuclear program, thus surrendering the only leverage that got North Korea to the table in the first place. Kim’s long-range missile program might be on the table for the first time in 20 years. In exchange, Trump could offer diplomatic recognition, a peace treaty, or sanctions relief. A grand bargain is possible in theory.
What’s more, Trump’s efforts could dissipate the perception in North Korea that the United States poses an existential threat and seeks to reunite the Peninsula by force. That could destabilize the North Korean regime in ways that have previously proven elusive. But if this maneuver were to fail, a return to dialogue at lower functionary levels or even through back channels might be regarded as a fruitless pursuit. After all, Donald Trump has said precisely that in the not-so-distant past. That would leave the United States with only one viable way to neutralize the North Korean nuclear program.
Still, some say, this gambit is worth the effort. The window of time in which the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula can be peacefully resolved is closing. More conventional approaches to the diplomatic crisis have failed. Maybe Donald Trump’s unique contempt both for precedent and expertise will allow him to craft an unforeseeable arrangement with North Korea. Even if that miracle were to occur, this meeting alone will have unintended and likely undesirable consequences.
Last month, during the Olympics in South Korea, it was revealed that Vice President Mike Pence and representatives from the North Korean government were on track to have a meeting that would likely not have been publicly revealed until it had been concluded. North Korea’s representatives canceled that at the last minute, and Pence spokesman Nick Ayers insisted that was because Pyongyang was denied a chance to achieve its propagandistic aims.
“This administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo-ops at the Olympics,” Ayers said. “Perhaps that’s why they walked away from a meeting or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down.” Unless verifiable denuclearization is on the table, Ayers added, there is nothing to talk about. So much for that. Today, North Korea has won the mother of all “photo-ops” without changing any of its behaviors, and that is entirely the result of its successful nuclear weapons program.
The regime’s confidence and sense of security will invariably be enhanced by this meeting, but the regime will not be defanged. Pyongyang could feel emboldened enough to pursue yet another military crisis on the Peninsula with the aim of testing America’s commitment to respond. If America fails this test, that would advance Pyongyang’s core objective: decoupling the United States-South Korean military alliance by exposing America as a faithless ally and a magnet for North Korean aggression.
There is a reason you can count the number of rogue regimes on one hand. There are some powerful incentives to pursue nuclear weapons, abuse problem populations, or generally destabilize the international environment, but the costs imposed on that course of action tend to deter the world’s aspiring scoundrels. Pyongyang has demonstrated that that the rewards associated with a nuclear weapons program may not necessarily outweigh the risks: global prominence, a peer relationship with the United States, and the prospect of reintegration into the international environment despite being a state sponsor of international terrorism and a purveyor of weapons, chemical munitions, and illicit drugs. Put this way, it’s easy to see why the last three consecutive presidents have turned down the offer for a face-to-face meeting with a member of the Kim family.
North Korea isn’t the only rogue state on the playing field, and it won’t be the last upstart nation to challenge the Western hegemony. How the United States contends with this threat will resonate around the world and for years to come. Trump’s decision to abandon the precedents set by his predecessors is a risky maneuver, and we will be living with the consequences of this decision—whatever they are—for decades to come. Let’s hope this White House knows what it’s doing.