Welcome to the new world, and it is President Donald Trump’s. Whether thanks to instinctual genius or dumb luck, the man who told diplomats at the United Nations in September that America might have to “totally destroy North Korea” is preparing now to offer peace and prosperity to that country’s dictator. Neither friends nor foes can ever know what to expect from Trump, but the unprecedented path he is treading on this subject may well lead to something good.
Kim Jong Un, at first, reacted to that threatening UN speech by calling Trump “a deranged dotard” and commenting that “a frightened dog barks loudest.”
Yet it was Kim who proposed in March that he and Trump sit down together. Trump didn’t hesitate in saying yes, and he never again mocked the young dictator as “Little Rocket Man.” Trump’s gut instinct told him that in this staring contest, it was the North Korean who blinked.
When Kim returned to unfriendly rhetoric two weeks ago, Trump went back to the intense glare of a manhood challenge — by ostentatiously calling off the summit — and again it was Kim who blinked.
For Americans, this should be encouraging. North Korea can barely mask the fact that its people are close to starvation, and now the regime is signaling that it is desperate for sanctions to be lifted.
Thus North Korea needs this meeting more than Trump does. Sure, he always seeks opportunities to be “a winner,” as that is one of Trump’s few core values; but he also wants to remind North Korea and the world that America is far wealthier and stronger and is not acting out of fear.
One of the puzzles about Trump is why he has seemed unusually focused and sensible on the Korean issue. Anyone who watched him chatting with reporters outside the White House on Friday, after he hosted the No. 2 man in the Communist government, Kim Yong Chol, would have to admit that Trump was confident without flamboyance as he discussed the summit he had just confirmed for June 12 in Singapore. The only slight embarrassment was his saying that the ballyhooed letter from Kim Jong Un that he had just been handed was “very interesting” and “very nice,” yet minutes later admitting that he had not yet opened the huge envelope.
Americans who fear that Trump may not be fully prepared for an encounter with the dictator — who, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is impressively familiar with all the issues, including his own nuclear arsenal — are concerned that Trump might give away far too much without considering all the interlinked complications.
The best thing Trump can do is keep it simple: Show up, smile for photographs, make his demands for denuclearization, and hint at financial rewards for North Korea without making firm promises.
It is difficult to disagree with Trump’s repeated assertion that “other presidents should have solved this problem long before I got here.”
Students of diplomacy know that the typical route to conflict resolution is for low-level officials to establish contact, then gradually draft agreements that finally their leaders can discuss and hopefully sign. Some of that traditional preparatory process has occurred, in a hurried way, in recent weeks.
Yet even when a breaking of the ice is unplanned and unscripted, it can succeed. Think back to Anwar Sadat’s precedent-shattering visit to Israel in November 1977. The president of Egypt had no set agenda when he visited the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin. Yet within 18 months, they signed a peace treaty.
Dan Raviv, senior Washington correspondent for i24NEWS, is author of “Every Spy a Prince” and “Comic Wars.”