fb-pixel Skip to main content

Trump to North Korea? Plenty of perils, and some potential

People watched a television news report showing pictures of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on Friday.JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

It is welcome news that two of the world’s most bombastic leaders will sit down to talk seriously about one of the globe’s most perilous standoffs. When belligerents are talking, they’re not fighting.

President Trump surprised the world, and the American security establishment, Thursday when he accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. On Friday, the White House appeared to walk back the meeting, but then reaffirmed it would occur after all.

In the short term, just the preparation for talks should ratchet down the bellicosity that has gripped the Korean peninsula since Kim Jong Un started detonating nuclear weapons in 2013. The greatest danger has always been a conflict triggered by misunderstanding or accident, which is why Trump’s penchant for publicly taunting “Little Rocket Man” was so reckless. In the longer term, the talks promise to — if nothing else — bring new energy to resolving a conflict that’s been in limbo since 1953.

On the flipside, of course, the dangers attendant to the talks are as numerous as they are momentous. And the Korea-watching community wasted little time fact-shaming the president on that score. Direct talks with the United States on equal footing is just what the Kim regime has desperately sought since the 1990s. The North Koreans have a history of eating carrots and ignoring sticks in past negotiations. Pyongyang will never surrender the weapons that it believes are its only security against regime change.


Even so, decades of conventional negotiations with North Korea have brought us to where we are today: A rogue power, for all intents and purposes isolated from the community of nations, is rapidly improving its nuclear arsenal and the delivery systems capable of raining them down on American cities. Meanwhile, the average North Korean is inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts due to decade after decade of malnutrition. The status quo has a cost, and too often we fail to take into account who pays the steepest price for it.


The outlines of an accord with North Korea are as easy to imagine as they are difficult to achieve. The United States and South Korea could scale back their military exercises, including one planned for the spring. They could stop talking about regime change and inch back the sanctions that have crippled the Hermit Kingdom. The North Koreans could agree to a nuclear testing freeze and stop conducting the missile tests that threaten their neighbors. They could also take steps to remedy their appalling human rights record. Both sides could agree finally to end the Korean War. Anything is possible.

In the past, the ultimate success of a summit relied on the diplomatic spade work that the Trump administration disdains. The State Department, once the envy of the world, is now famous for its empty offices. The position of US ambassador to South Korea is currently vacant. The value of diplomats is that they offer their bosses an opportunity to understand how others see the world. Should the talks ever take place — a big if, especially after the White House’s gyrations on Friday — Kim Jong Un and President Trump will both lack a firm understanding of where the other side stands.


For instance, North Korea seems to understand “denuclearization” as a mutual process by which North Korea and the United States both reduce and eventually dismantle all their nuclear weapons. Indeed, dismantling all nuclear weapons was the stated promise of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1968. Non-nuclear states, including North Korea, signed on the dotted line. But the nuclear powers never dismantled their doomsday arsenals.

The North Koreans, for their part, will have to try mightily to understand a US president who confounds even his own countrymen with his unpredictable words and deeds. And they’ll run up against that problem right off the bat, when they consider the value of any agreement a summit reaches. Trump has repeatedly insisted that he won’t honor the deal his predecessor signed with Iran. As he heads into the talks, those are words that Kim Jong Un surely remembers.