The Skeptics

If Trump Meets Kim, He Should Do It the Right Way

President Trump has said a lot of questionable, unconventional—some would say borderline crazy—things over the first three months of his presidency. He’s hit America’s European allies hard on their sluggish defense spending (it’s about time), going to so far as to hint that the United States may no longer be there when the going gets tough. He’s blasted Saudi Arabia as a weakling that would have been taken over by radical jihadists were it not for the protection that the United States provides the royal family. And Trump has had a tendency to say nice things about authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, praise that the human-rights community finds nauseating.

But none of these statements have come close to his utterance to Bloomberg last week that he would consider meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un directly—a man commonly given the privilege of being considered the most despicable human being on the face of the earth. “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him [Kim], I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump told Bloomberg when asked about the prospect of a meeting. “If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”

It’s these kind of comments that cause high blood pressure in Washington, a town still trying to determine what Donald Trump, a riddle wrapped inside an enigma, is all about. Sen. John McCain flatly stated, “I don’t understand it, and I don’t think that the president appreciates the fact that when he says things like that, it helps the credibility and prestige of this really outrageous strongman.” Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright wasn’t happy that Trump used the word “honored” and “Kim” in the same sentence. And former secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton thinks a Trump-Kim sit down would be an awful idea of epic proportions.

But what people seem to be missing or are choosing to ignore is Trump’s qualifier: “under the right circumstances.” This suggests that Trump understands that flying Air Force One to Pyongyang or inviting Kim Jong-un to the White House, without any warning or context whatsoever, in the current environment would be a public-relations disaster. It also would be highly unlikely that the meeting between the two would result in anything tangible.

It would be foolish, however, to knock down any possibility of a meeting with Kim in the future. Dangling a photo opportunity with the most powerful man on the planet is an enormous carrot that Washington can offer, particularly if a negotiation is already ongoing. Getting the president in a room to hash out the final details may be just what a bogged-down negotiating process needs to proceed to a good result. The president of the United States deserves as much flexibility as possible to make agreements for the benefit of the American people.

So if President Trump is genuine in his readiness to share a meal with the world’s worst tyrant, he needs to be smart. A Trump-Kim summit should only happen under these three conditions:

1. All Americans are released from North Korean custody.

Pyongyang has had a habit over the last decade of snatching Americans who are studying or traveling in North Korea, charging them with conspiring to overthrow the state, sentencing them to hard labor, and only releasing them if a high-profile American flies into the capital and presses the issue. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have each taken a plane to Pyongyang at some point in their careers in order to win the freedom of imprisoned Americans—in Clinton’s case, he had to endure the humiliating experience of posing stoically with the late Kim Jong-il for the entire world to see. But eventually, the Americans were returned to American custody and flown back home.

Over the last two weeks, the North Koreans have arrested two Korean American professors on the basis of being a danger to the Kim dynasty. These arrests bring the total of Americans in North Korean detention to four, all of whom have either already been or will soon be sentenced to hard labor. It would be wholly inappropriate for President Trump to meet with Kim when four fellow Americans are behind bars under terrible conditions, based on charges that haven’t been proven in an impartial court of law. Imagine the optics if Trump concluded a meeting with Kim without getting those Americans back: it would be a would be a direct refutation of Trump’s deal-making persona and an international embarrassment for the entire country. Best to draw a line in the sand.

2. Pyongyang’s WMD programs must be frozen.