WASHINGTON — For the moment, at least, it appears to be a clear-cut victory — the biggest foreign policy win of his young administration. President Donald Trump has brought his arch-nemesis, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a.k.a. “Little Rocket Man,” to the table to negotiate away his nuclear arsenal.
Optimists declared a major breakthrough. Even pessimists acknowledged that Trump’s hard line against Pyongyang, after decades of less forceful U.S. effort, played a significant role in moving one of the world’s most vexing and threatening problems in a potentially positive direction.
But in the afterglow of the surprise announcement — hinted by Trump in a teasing visit to the White House press room and soon confirmed by South Korea’s national security adviser, standing in the West Wing driveway — questions were fast and furious.
Were direct talks between Kim and Trump, two notably volatile leaders who have traded public insults for more than a year, the best way to start what are sure to be complicated negotiations? Was the administration, whose thin bench of experienced experts seems to be growing slimmer by the day, ready to face those wily and untrustworthy North Koreans? The talks, U.S. and South Korean officials said, would take place before the end of May.
By some assessments, this is really a victory for Kim, who for years has sought proof of his status and North Korea’s power by dangling the offer of leader-to-leader talks with the United States.
Some analysts said it remains unclear what Trump is prepared to put on the table opposite Kim’s apparent offer to stop testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and discuss denuclearization. “Sanctions? Normalization? Peace treaty?” tweeted Victor Cha, the expert who was once Trump’s choice as ambassador to South Korea, before he voiced concern that the White House was contemplating a pre-emptive military strike against Pyongyang.
According to a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, the answer is not very much.
North Korean delegation at the White House on March 8 — Photo: Chris Kleponis/CNP/ZUMA
There would be no reward for talks themselves, the official said. Trump would expect a dismantled nuclear weapons program, with complete “verification,” and “will settle for nothing less.”
But “President Trump has a reputation for making deals,” the official added. “Kim Jong-un is the one person able to make decisions in their uniquely totalitarian system and so it made sense to accept the invitation with the one person who can make decisions instead of repeating the long slog of the past.”
Trump has a vibrant track record of surprise announcements that have distracted attention, at least temporarily, from concern over tariffs and border walls and the growing threat to his presidency posed by the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
At the same time, he has claimed a long string of successes over the past 14 months that others have challenged as lacking a strategy for long-term sustainability, from the currently robust economy to the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“A Trump-Kim summit is a major diplomatic gamble,” tweeted Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for New American Security. “But let’s see if it actually comes off. Recall that yesterday, we were set to impose steel tariffs on Canada.”
Unfortunately, denuclearization is a distant fantasy.
Among experts, there were widely divergent views of what had happened, and why, and what the risks were.
“Beyond the initial shock value of the invitation from Kim Jong Un to Trump,” and Trump’s acceptance, “I think the real underlying questions are still what are they going to negotiate,” said Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Two months doesn’t give working-level officials much time to pull things together.”
“It’s certainly the start of talks. Whether or not it’s a true breakthrough in terms of change in North Korea’s calculus, I’m still a little skeptical,” she said. “I tend to be more of a pessimist.
Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said it was “absolutely right to extend the nuclear and missile test pause” declared by Pyongyang during talks last week with the Seoul government. “It will help repair ties with South Korea and keeps us back from the brink of war.”
“Unfortunately,” Mount said, “denuclearization is a distant fantasy.” The administration “has not equipped itself for success. They have not laid the groundwork for credibility in talks [and] lack leadership with experience in international negotiation. . . . In accepting the invitation outright, Trump has already lost much of his leverage over the terms and agenda of the talks.”
The “better play,” he said, “is to start by offering a credible plan to stabilize the peninsula and halt nuclear and missile tests sustainably, and then build out to a more ambitious agreement.”
Others were less skeptical. Robert Carlin, who led numerous U.S. delegations to North Korea and served in various senior intelligence and diplomatic roles during previous outreaches to Pyongyang, cited North Korean statements over the years that indicated its nuclear weapons program was largely developed as leverage to gain economic stability.
In a seminal statement in March 2013, Carlin recalled, Kim said that North Korea’s nuclear policy would proceed rapidly to “blunt the American threat and create a peaceful environment so that we can concentrate on the economy. This is his victory. It’s really important for him and they probably believe it.”
“We can’t push them around. They do have nuclear weapons,” Carlin said. But “they do have a leader who wants to pivot to the economy. Let’s test that. Let’s see if we can use [Kim’s] own momentum, like ju-jitsu, to help accomplish what we want.”
*With David Nakamura, Ashley Parker and Anne Gearan.
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