After months of escalation in the North Korean nuclear crisis, it seems we’ve finally had a breakthrough: Kim Jong Un wants to talk with the United States, and says he is open to discussing giving up his country’s nuclear program. President Trump’s strategy to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, volatile though it seemed, appears to have worked. Except there’s a catch. Kim wants to negotiate directly with Trump, and Trump has said yes. By accepting this offer, the president is setting a dangerous precedent about rewarding bad behavior — in this case, from a designated state sponsor of terrorism.
The Trump administration says that face-to-face talks between Kim and Trump will take place in the next few months, while diplomats scramble to set up some kind of preliminary meetings to make sure both sides are on the same page (an objective that’s probably unrealistic). In the meantime, the White House is assuring us that sanctions will stay in place and that the administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” will continue unabated.
While the news of this diplomatic breakthrough is causing many to let out a huge sigh of relief, there’s ample reason to be suspicious. For one thing, it’s not at all clear that Kim is serious about making any significant changes to the North Korean regime, which is a totalitarian slave state. There is also a strong possibility that these talks, like previous talks with Pyongyang, are nothing more than a ruse to allow North Korea to stall. By engaging the United States and South Korea in diplomatic talks with the promise that this time, truly, it is willing to give up its nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang can buy itself a significant amount of time to finish the work of mounting a nuclear weapon to one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Consider this: The Kim regime is all about image, especially when it comes to its own people. All of North Korean society is a sort of dark Orwellian farce. It’s hard to believe that Kim would offer to talk — and possibly give up his nukes — without some bluster to help him save face with his own people.
But let’s be a little more optimistic and say that it’s a genuine olive branch, that the North knows that America has it backed into a corner and that it’s looking for an escape hatch. That’s great news. Maximum pressure worked. The North was sufficiently squeezed such that it has realized resistance and further escalation are futile and will only lead to the regime’s demise. So, it suggests high-level talks, the highest possible: between Kim and Trump. Audacious, but hey, at least Pyongyang wants to talk.
But here’s the problem: Trump said yes.
The Trump administration should certainly respond to North Korea’s overtures positively, albeit cautiously. It should have agreed to send a team of diplomats to begin talks about what aspects of its nuclear program North Korea is willing to give up, and to set some pre-conditions, beginning with allowing international inspectors access to its military sites. A meeting with Trump should only take place after nuclear concessions have been made — and verified. But to have the U.S. president meet with the North Korean dictator, after the latter has done nothing but escalate and provoke, is to reward bad behavior. It also sets up a dangerous precedent for other dictatorial regimes.
What’s more, for Trump to sit down for direct talks with Kim Jong Un, the despotic ruler of a brutal authoritarian regime that has enslaved its its people, is not only dangerous but an insult to the North Korean people, who suffer daily under his rule. That’s why no sitting U.S. president has ever agreed to meet with a North Korean leader. If Kim gets his photo-op with Trump, it would be a huge propaganda coup.
Keep in mind, also, that, while North Korea has suggested a willingness to discuss dismantling its nuclear program, and appears willing to come to talks without preconditions, it hasn’t really offered up any concessions to get to the negotiating table. Pyongyang said that it won’t test any more nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles for the time being, and that it understands that the U.S.-South Korea military drills must continue. But these aren’t exactly concessions. That was simply the status quo that North Korea broke with.
Gifting North Korea with this level of recognition and validation is something that should only happen after significant changes have been made, not just to the country’s nuclear program but to basic human rights and civil liberties, starting with the free movement of peoples across the Korean, Chinese, and Russian borders.
For months, we’ve been hearing from the foreign policy establishment and the mainstream media about how Trump is unhinged and reckless, about how he’s a warmonger who just wants to bomb North Korea. Well, it turns out he can be reckless in the other direction, too. A kind of reckless diplomacy that we’ve seen before.
Barack Obama was notorious for conducting this kind of foreign policy — one that’s more concerned with headlines than end results. Take Cuba, for example. Obama normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba without requiring the communist regime there to make any significant changes to its economy or to its human rights record. Obama’s desire to achieve something great, to have a watershed moment, eclipsed the fact that the conditions were not yet ripe for the kind of change he wanted to enact. He validated a corrupt, tyrannical regime that had impoverished and imprisoned Cubans for decades, and got little in return.
Just the same, Trump wants to be the president who “solves” the decades-long North Korean nuclear problem, to be the first sitting president willing to sit down with the other side. Trump, it would appear, suffers from the same malady that Obama did: Both men are all too eager to make history and ensure their own legacies, albeit for different reasons. Obama wanted to make history as an outpouring of his own ideology and as a product of buying into the narrative that he was, in a matter of speaking, a kind of Messiah sent to save America (and the world) from itself.
Trump’s desire for a great foreign policy legacy is in part a result of his natural bombast and vanity. But it’s also a reaction to the non-stop insistence from the media and foreign policy establishment that Trump is dangerous, reckless, and doesn’t know how to conduct foreign policy. Trump wants to prove them wrong. If he’s not careful, the result could be disastrous.