President Donald Trump has agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un for the first-ever meeting of a U.S. president and a dictator of North Korea. This meeting, if it happens, would be earth-shattering.
U.S. relations with North Korea are one of the most intractable and dangerous situations in the world. The potential negotiations between Kim and Trump would be monumental, especially in light of the legacies of the Korean War, seven decades of ruthless dictatorship by the Kim family and its threats of using nuclear weapons against the U.S. But would Trump’s negotiations be the right thing to do now?
In 2000, Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, was the last high-level U.S. official to meet with a leader of North Korea. Her talks ended in failure. If Trump negotiated a successful treaty, it would be similar to President Richard Nixon’s opening of relations to China in the 1970s. Trump’s willingness to meet with Kim is breathtaking, bold, dramatic and possibly the riskiest of Trump’s policies. What could possibly go wrong?
First, Trump and the White House have provided confusing statements on the precise conditions required in order for these negotiations to take place. Trump too quickly agreed to Kim’s invitation for “negotiations” without any preconditions. Shouldn’t Trump at least call for the release of U.S. citizens still detained by North Korea? Then, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson weighed in to clarify that these were “talks,” not “negotiations.” Finally, Trump’s spokesperson said that the meeting would only go ahead if North Korea takes “concrete and verifiable actions” toward denuclearization.
Second, Trump has failed to lay the groundwork for any meaningful negotiations. He has not developed the expertise within the State Department to carry out substantive negotiations. The U.S. does not have an ambassador to South Korea and the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy resigned just before Trump’s surprise announcement. And Trump left Tillerson in the dark about these negotiations. Additionally, Trump made a unilateral decision without broad consultation from key regional players, including South Korea, Japan and China.
Third, no one knows what Trump envisions as the end game for these negotiations. Trump has offered confusing policy statements. He has stated that he cannot support North Korea with nuclear weapons. Yet that issue may not be on the table. The Kim regime wants a united Korean peninsula. Would that issue become part of Trump’s negotiations with the dictator? Or should Trump demand a radical regime change? Simply by agreeing to meet personally with Kim, Trump is leading the way for the U.S. to provide complete legitimacy to Kim’s dynastic and dictatorial control over the country with no clear benefit to the US.
Finally, does Trump have the necessary negotiating skills to hammer out a beneficial agreement with Kim? Recent tests of his leadership skills are not hopeful. He gave up Jerusalem without obtaining any benefits from Israel. He agreed to a bipartisan immigration deal, but blew it up at the last moment. And he did the same with recent gun control policies.
U.S. officials who have negotiated with North Koreans describe them as adept negotiators, logical, rational and purposeful, with long-term patience. They clearly would have studied Trump’s behavioral traits as a means to influence his decision-making and mindset. No doubt, they have studied his personality characteristics, such as his narcissism, being thin-skinned and open to unadulterated praise.
Kim could outfox Trump by simply agreeing to meet as an equal to the most powerful country in the world and by obfuscating and outright lying about the prospects for getting rid of his nuclear weapons program. Moreover, if Trump negotiates and fails, not only would he have raised Kim’s stature, but it also could lead to a significant loss in U.S. prestige with ultimately no change in North Korea’s policies.
Instead of his immediate acceptance of Kim’s invitation, Trump should initiate talks at a low diplomatic level and then determine conditions for negotiations set at a higher level. Tillerson should take the lead in the negotiations, and both an ambassador to South Korea and a North Korean special assistant should be in place. Trump should not sit across the table from Kim until the preconditions are set. Finally, these negotiations need to involve regional countries including China.
Despite these concerns, as Winston Churchill reportedly said, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
Howard Lehman is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah.