We still don’t know why North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is interested in sitting down with U.S. President Donald Trump, but right now that’s the least of anyone’s concerns.
The bigger worry among the experts and analysts is that the summit in Singapore might actually happen. The Trump administration suddenly seems to have clued in to those concerns, too.
On the surface, it seems like such a good thing — a potentially historic turn-about by a country often branded as “the most dangerous nation in the world.” We’ve come a long way from the days of “fire and fury.”
Maybe Kim Jong Un is ready to give up his nuclear weapons, and play nice? Maybe Donald Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize? There’s a whole lot of hype and speculation.
The problem is that this meeting and its sky-high goals aren’t grounded in the reality of how diplomacy actually gets done, and that could spell disaster.
The people who’ve negotiated massive international deals will tell you that it usually takes a year or more of behind the scenes negotiations before two leaders sit down for a productive face-to-face meeting. You want to make sure you agree on what you’re going to talk about, before you actually sit down and talk.
But that hasn’t happened with the Trump-Kim summit. It was cobbled together in a few weeks, with no clear goals, and no framework for negotiations.
Other than agreeing to travel to Singapore, they haven’t even announced where exactly they’ll meet.
“This whole thing is sort of being thrown together on the fly,” explained Robert E. Kelly, a professor at Pusan National University in South Korea. “My own sense is that it would be best if this was postponed for a while so that both sides could nail down a framework, at least get some consensus before going in.”
Instead, it appears as if the entire summit is based on a whole bunch of assumptions about who is willing to give up what.
When war is the fallback position for both sides, that’s an incredibly dangerous place to be.
Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have spoken at length about how denuclearization is the only acceptable outcome.
The North Koreans have recently said they won’t be backed into a corner over that issue. It’s hard to see them simply walking away from the nuclear weapons they spent decades developing at great cost.
The best guess from the experts is that Kim has decided he holds the ultimate bargaining chip: nuclear weapons capable of reaching the continental United States.
With those, he can push for sanctions relief, foreign aid, a reduction in U.S. troops in South Korea and the one thing he needs to keep his grip on power: legitimacy.
A photo of Kim shaking hands with Donald Trump will be worth as much, if not more, than any concrete outcomes from the summit.
Typically, an American president would probably not agree to sit down and talk on such loosey-goosey terms.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is looking for a big win at a time when the pressures of the Russia probe are bearing down on his administration.
He, too, wants that made-for-TV moment, and all the attention and praise that will come with it.
But it could all fall apart, either before or during the meeting, and that could easily put the two sides back on the path to war.
“If it’s a bust, that could arguably bolster hawks on both sides who said, ‘Hey look, we told you this was going to happen, we have to dig in,’” Kelly explained.
South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, who’s often dubbed “The Trump Whisperer,” told Fox News that “if the North Koreans stiff [Trump], if they sit down and meet with him and try to play him, they’re going to regret it.”
No one knows what the next steps are in that kind of scenario.
The problem for the Trump administration is that by agreeing to meet Kim in the first place, they’re now locked to a whole bunch of expectations that no one agreed to.
At this point, even calling off or delaying the meeting, as President Trump has suggested, could carry consequences.
“If they don’t meet him on June 12th, that’s probably the end of diplomacy,” Sen. Graham suggested.
Jackson Proskow is Washington Bureau Chief for Global National.
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