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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

North Korea already scores a victory

A TV screen shows North Korean leader Kim

A TV screen shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump at the Seoul Railway Station on Friday. Credit: AP / Ahn Young-joon

Dotard and the Rocket Man.

It’s a buddy movie. Two guys hit the road, personalities clash, high jinks ensue.

Which beats the heck out of nuclear bombs ensue.

How to digest the news that President Donald Trump has agreed to sit down with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for talks about that country’s nuclear program?

Relief is one defensible reaction. As long as these two are working on the logistics of meeting instead of hurling broadsides like “maniac” and “frightened dog” and “bad dude” and “mentally deranged,” they’re less likely to push their respective buttons and unleash fire and fury.

Confusion is another response.

The announcement Thursday was so impromptu as to invite speculation that it was an attempted distraction from, say, the looming Stormy Daniels porn-star-with-a-contract problem. Trump wasn’t scheduled to meet with the South Korean delegation conveying Kim’s offer until Friday, heard they were in the White House meeting other folks, called them into the Oval Office, accepted the invite, and sent them out into the dark of the White House driveway to tell the world. By the next day, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was insisting that North Korea would have to take “concrete and verifiable” steps toward denuclearization for the meeting to take place.

So, is it going to happen?

For now, it’s interesting enough that Trump and Kim appear to have come to any agreement. Was it Trump’s tough talk that brought Kim around? Was it the ever-tightening sanctions on North Korea? Was it Vice President Mike Pence’s cold-shoulder treatment of Kim’s sister at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, or the new South Korean government’s eager overtures to Kim there and elsewhere? Or was it Kim’s comment in November, after a year of unnerving missile and nuclear tests, that his country’s missile program was “completed” and he was in position to negotiate with the United States as an equal?

Make no mistake, Kim already has posted a win. He and his family have always sought legitimacy, and there’s nothing more legitimizing than potentially sitting across a table from the world’s most powerful man. And this thing could go badly enough that that’s the only win anyone gets. Which might be Kim’s plan all along.

Let’s remember: North Korea has made promises before that went unkept. Everything we’ve heard about Kim’s offer has come from South Korea; Kim has not spoken directly. And the two sides seem to differ on what “denuclearization” means. For the United States, it’s North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. For North Korea, whose constitution proclaims the country a nuclear state, it involves both North Korea and America de-nuking gradually, in tandem, according to experts. Talk about the curse of mismatched expectations.

Another wild card is Trump’s own personality. He can’t approach this with the breezy insouciance of “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” Despite his self-advertisements, Trump has been an uneven negotiator in dealing with Congress.

And he’s going in without the usual backup. The State Department has been decimated. Its principal North Korea negotiator just retired. There still is no ambassador to South Korea. On the day of the big reveal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Africa saying that the two nations were not close to having talks about having talks. Usually, diplomatic grunts do the tedious pre-talks legwork, exchange proposals, hammer out the fine points, and set the stage for the leaders to come in and close. That’s not what’s happening here.

The whole episode is a departure from norms, but Trump could care less. And why should he? Nothing typical has worked with North Korea. Why not roll the dice?

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.