President Trump’s surprise announcement Thursday that he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stunned observers as it raised the prospect of the United States forging a peaceful end to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea — or being outfoxed as North Korea continues its drive to become a nuclear power and threatens a second Korean War.
Here are four things to know about the latest news:
The meeting is a win for North Korea
No sitting US president has met with a North Korean leader since the Korean War, despite such a meeting being a longtime goal of the hermit country, experts say.
Kim and his family, who have ruled North Korea since its inception, have sought meetings in the past with American presidents to gain legitimacy on the world stage but have been turned down, said Nicholas Burns, a former career diplomat who worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
“This family has been trying to get this meeting for decades,” Burns said in a telephone interview.
Why did the United States reject past meetings? Burns pointed out that the United States battled North Korea in the Korean War and the South Koreans are US allies. North Korea is also an outlaw state and a human rights violator, he said.
“They’re bad people,” Burns said.
“North Korea has been seeking a summit with an American president for more than twenty years. It has literally been a top foreign policy goal of Pyongyang since Kim Jong Il invited Bill Clinton,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said in a tweet. Kim Jong Il was Kim Jong Un’s father.
Consider the alternative
While North Korea may have scored points by getting the United States to agree to the meeting, Burns said talking around a conference table is still better than war.
“I think it’s positive that President Trump and Kim are turning toward diplomacy,” he said. “They were on a collision course. There was a possibility of war.”
“I’ve always felt as a former diplomat and negotiator that before you go to war, you ought to see if there’s another way forward,” he said.
The devil is in the details
Burns and other experts, however, also say that the devil is in the details — and Trump will have to be wary of the North Koreans.
“This is not a good regime we’re dealing with,” he said. “This is a very brutal person. He’s also obviously very skilled.”
Burns said the Trump administration should pull together a team, including career diplomats, and coordinate with South Korea, Japan, and, if possible, China before walking into the room. Trump would also be well-advised to have a series of preliminary meetings between lower-level officials.
“You want to scope that out first. You want to see if there’s a deal out there or not. . . . You just can’t do this on the fly,” he said.
Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, told Bloomberg News, “I do worry about a president who has no foreign policy experience getting out-maneuvered. . . . I don’t trust Donald Trump alone in a room with Kim Jong Un.”
Lewis, of the Middlebury Institute, said in another tweet, “Kim is not inviting Trump so that he can surrender North Korea’s weapons. Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that his investment in nuclear and missile capabilities has forced the United States to treat him as an equal.”
Trump’s team has key vacancies
The problem of preparation for the rapidly approaching May summit is compounded by a “thin bench” at the State Department, Burns said.
Trump “doesn’t have the backup he needs right now,” Burns said.
The United States still doesn’t have an ambassador to Seoul, the special envoy for North Korea just announced his retirement, and career officials have been leaving the State Department.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared out of the loop Thursday when the announcement was made that Trump and Kim were going to meet. Earlier that same day, Tillerson had said, “‘We’re a long way from negotiations; we just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it.’’
Burns said, “They’re going to have to trust the career people” at the State Department, who include fluent Korean speakers and people who have spent years studying North Korea and would have insight into Kim’s psychology and motivations.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked at Friday’s media briefing what Trump was doing to prepare for the summit. She offered few specifics but said officials were “confident” about preparations.
“The president has been preparing for this for quite some time in his regular briefings with the intelligence community, with his national security team. He’s going to continue doing that and with other subject matter experts. But also, the president is, I think, the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker when it comes to any type of conversation . . . and we feel very confident in where we are.”
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.