The face-to-face meeting that Donald Trump plans with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will be unlike anything Trump has ever done in his life. Kim, almost certainly the cruelest dictator on Earth, bears no known similarity to the real estate developers and bankers Trump negotiated with in his business career.
Like him or not, one has to admit that Trump’s agreement to hold this summit shows a deep reservoir of courage — or is it misguided overconfidence?
Even before a date or location has been set for the dramatic handshake, Trump has signaled that he is looking for North Korean concessions that he can spin as victories for his own brand of personal diplomacy. In response to Kim’s announcement that nuclear tests are being suspended and a test site shut down, Trump tweeted on Friday, “. . . big progress! Look forward to our Summit.”
On Sunday, perhaps prematurely — but Trump is in position to know what North Korea is saying privately — he tweeted, “Wow, we haven’t given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization . . .”
There are, however, strong reasons to doubt that North Korea’s 34-year-old tyrant is about to negotiate away his ace in the hole: the nuclear bombs that guarantee his regime’s survival. European diplomats who have met with North Koreans say they have mentioned Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as examples of giving up a nuclear arsenal or never achieving one. So where are they now? Overthrown and dead.
Kim, who proposed this summit, must hope to reach a compromise with the United States by offering to give up a lot — but not everything. There will always be a high risk that North Korea is cheating, perhaps hiding some of its nuclear weapons. In the past, it has violated deals that averted crises.
Kim launched his charm offensive aimed at South Korea, including participation in the Winter Olympics in February, for several reasons showing both weakness and strength. North Korea’s economy is barely limping along, hobbled by sanctions that even China joined. However, U.S. analysts contend that Kim and his “royal family” do not care if their people are starving.
It is, worryingly, North Korea’s strength — its progress in developing long-range missiles and nuclear bombs — that led Kim to replace constant threats with smiles and summits. He achieved the level of nuclear know-how he wanted.
The state-controlled media proudly trumpeted last autumn that North Korea developed the capability to launch a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the United States.
That was five months ago, when Trump had mocked Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man,” and North Korea’s government labeled Trump a “dotard.” We seem to have traveled a long and positive road since then.
Yet Kim will try to deceive Trump. How could he not try to fool a new U.S. president known not to read complex intelligence analyses, and who can be wooed by a shower of compliments? We must hope that if there is an offer of full or partial disarmament, Trump will respond that American experts must review the details. But what if Trump is seduced by the chimera of a deal? He might grab that. He declared on Tuesday that so far, Kim has been “open and honorable.”
Note that even as Trump meets in Washington this week with France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, he might hear from his national security team — led by the habitually skeptical John Bolton — that North Korea is making empty promises. The encounter with Kim might never happen. As Trump has put it, “If I think that it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go.” That would put us right back in a Korea crisis.
Dan Raviv is senior Washington correspondent for i24News and co-author of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”