Given Trump’s bellicosity towards North Korea, his proposed talks with its leader, Kim Jung Un, provide at least some temporary reassurance. Talking generally is better than war.
Still, Trump’s proposal, which surprised even the South Koreans, has a good chance of turning out badly.
Summit meetings between countries’ leaders are usually arranged only after months of negotiations with underlings. The leaders then engage in a signing ceremony after an agreement has been reached. There is a reason for this: Sometimes an accord isn’t possible.
The White House describes the purpose of the meeting as the denuclearization of North Korea. North Korea, though, will never give up its missiles and nuclear weapons. The Korean War never officially ended; only an armistice has ever been in place. North Korea fears that South Korea and the United States might topple its government one way or another. Given South Korea’s immense economic success and North Korea’s abject poverty, North Korea feels threatened. It believes its best way to safeguard its power is the missiles and nuclear weapons it has spent the past 25 years developing. Given that Kim Jung Un sees these as indispensable to maintaining his government, North Korea will not surrender them.
On the other hand, North Korea desperately wants the U.S. to recognize it as an equal. It has proposed and craved a meeting between its leader and the leader of the United States as long as it has been developing nuclear weapons. U.S. Presidents prior to Trump have been unwilling to meet, given that it would boost North Korea’s status internationally and is very unlikely to lead to any improvement in relations. Even if no deal results, North Korea will have accomplished a major goal if the meeting just occurs. And even though North Korea has promised that it will not conduct nuclear or missile tests while the talks are pending, it certainly will continue its manufacturing. Testing can always be resumed later.
What’s less clear is why Trump agreed to the meeting. Given that the Mueller investigation is closing in, it may simply be another of Trump’s signature distractions. Perhaps he hopes to tilt the Pennsylvania Congressional election on Tuesday in favor of the Republican, Rick Saccone. Although Trump won this district by 20 points in 2016, recent polls give Democrat Conor Lamb the edge. It’s also conceivable that Trump believes his own hype as the world’s greatest negotiator and thinks he can persuade North Korea to drop its nukes. In reality, Trump has proven himself one of the world’s worst negotiators.
It is possible that Trump could get North Korea to say it will give up its nuclear weapons if the U.S. withdraws its troops from South Korea and effectively allows the North to invade. Outside of something that extreme, eventually it will become clear that North Korea will not give up its missiles and nuclear weapons on any terms the U.S. would find acceptable.
What will Trump do then? He could try to arrange a face-saving agreement, even if nothing substantive is accomplished. More likely, given what we’ve seen from Trump, he could ramp up threats of military force. He knows military action generally boosts a President’s ratings and could well help the Republicans in the 2018 elections. He faces loss of the House to the Democrats in November and, if that happens, impeachment in 2019. In short, he could blame North Korea for failure to reach an agreement and then use that as an excuse for military action.