The Skeptics

The Trump-Kim Summit Should Be Delayed (and the Reason Is Obvious)

The last week has been yet another head-spinner in the Trump administration’s interaction with North Korea. Six months ago President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.” Then suddenly he agreed to a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un just forty-five minutes after the idea was first pitched to him by South Korean envoys. Everyone has whiplash, which is almost never good for policy.

The Korea analyst community has prevaricated over this all week on cable news and social media, as it seems far too fast and too unlikely. My own sense is broadly the same: this is moving so quickly, that the possibility of the summit stalemating or falling into an acrimonious back-and-forth between Trump and Kim is much higher than normal. Traditionally, summits occur at the end of years of diplomacy and staff work in which the devils in the details have been hammered out. The heads of state show up at the conclusion to nail down a few particulars, lend their prestige to the proceedings, and finalize the deal.

By contrast, Trump is suggesting to meet Kim in just nine weeks. That is simply not enough time, especially if a grand bargain on peninsular affairs is really in cards. Previous efforts on North Korea’s nuclear weapons—the Agreed Framework and the Six Party Talks—took years of effort and still fell through. If the summit really does happen by the end of May, the two sides will simply not have had enough time to close much of the enormous strategic and ideological divide between the United States and North Korea. That will leave much that Trump himself must do, personally, in the room with Kim. To put it gently, it is huge question whether Trump is really up to this.

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Trump defenders are already suggesting he has the chops for this, because he is a great negotiator practicing the “art of the deal.” But we need to be more candid here; the stakes are far too high to indulge Trump’s reality TV persona. Much in Trump’s character suggests he is not, in fact, ready for this. He does not read, including the presidential daily brief, if rumor is true. He almost certainly knows very little about Korea. Some reports suggest he watches an enormous amounts of television. His grip on policy details, again according to various reports, is notoriously thin and error-prone. He lies regularly. He is moody, erratic, unpredictable and impulsive. He dislikes professional and technical staff, and he has an obvious preference for amateur friends and family. He is absorbed with his vendettas, feuds, scandals and so on. Some claim his attention span is short, and he is prone to wander wildly off-script. He is given to rage, profanity and insult when challenged.

Kim, by contrast, will almost certainly be a tough customer. No one could survive the brutal backrooms of Pyongyang politics without being a skilled bureaucratic knife-fighter. Kim overcame his inauspicious beginnings to the surprise of many who suspected a young man with no time in the party or army would not last. He has culled the army brass, assassinated his brother-in-law, rapidly finished the North’s nuclear and missile programs, and gotten the moribund economy growing again—all while sanctions have piled up. Trump has never dealt with anyone or thing like this, and his usual negotiating tactics of bluster, threats, lawsuits, insults and so on will not work. If this is to succeed, Trump will really have to buckle down and prepare. That is, to be generous, highly unlikely.

As a result, there is a not insignificant possibility that Trump will be outplayed by someone who knows the issues far better than he, or that the event will descend into a shouting match as two characters unaccustomed to being challenged tear into each other, as they did last year in the media (“rocket man” vs the “dotard”). If I had to guess, this outcome is unlikely, but it is still far more likely than in a normal summit preceded by proper staff work involving a president intellectually committed to the process. Most likely, the summit will be a bust, in which the genuinely deep issues between the two sides go unresolved given just nine weeks to resolve them. A face-saving communique could be released in which each side gives up something small, but no grand bargain would emerge.

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