The notion of a Nobel Peace Prize for President Donald Trump is a peculiar one, but only the most petty, hyperpartisan soul could wish for him to fail at the meeting currently scheduled for Jun 12 in Singapore. A lot is at stake.
Events are moving quickly, but at this writing both the meeting itself and its chances for a successful outcome appear to be in jeopardy. The seemingly good-willed rapprochement that began with North Korea’s attendance at the recent Winter Olympics has largely evaporated in the last few days. North Korea has threatened to pull out of the meeting in Singapore, and Trump is saying what he often says: “We’ll see what happens.”
A meeting between Kim Jong Un and Trump was an improbable proposition from the beginning. Ordinarily the foundation for such a meeting is laid well in advance by diplomatic subordinates, whose preliminary work reduces the stakes for a summit between heads of state and helps determine whether such a meeting is feasible.
But even Kim must have been gratified and maybe a little surprised when Trump readily accepted his proposal for a meeting without the customary preliminaries. Kim’s stature was elevated substantially by the prospect of a face-to-face summit with the leader of the free world, and Trump required nothing in the way of concessions in exchange.
Kim may have understood the irresistibility that the meeting would hold for Trump. During the campaign, Trump said, “I alone can fix it.” He sees himself as the ultimate charmingly hardnosed negotiator and dealmaker, and the chance to brush aside the ineffective dillydallying of his predecessors and solve the problem head-to-head, once and for all, must have been enormously tempting.
But it was never going to be that easy. I’m not an expert on North Korea or nuclear weapons, and the chances are very good that you aren’t either. Nevertheless it doesn’t take an expert to predict that Kim will not be willing to give up his nuclear arsenal, which is the one thing that gives him credibility and international leverage. Without it, North Korea would be an inconsequential backwater.
So Trump accepted the meeting while entertaining an objective - the complete denuclearization of North Korea - whose achievement is highly unlikely, certainly in one high-stakes meeting.
In the meantime, Trump gave Kim considerable credit for releasing three Americans who had been held hostage by North Korea. He said that Kim “really was excellent to these three incredible people.” Little notice was taken of the 200,000 political prisoners who North Korea currently retains under inhumane conditions that include subjection to torture.
Or of the fact that national leaders who are willing to assassinate their own relatives to maintain their political power are unlikely to become compliant, peace-loving humanitarians overnight.
Nevertheless, Kim has managed to take control of the situation. Trump should reclaim the initiative by canceling the June 12 meeting before Kim has a chance to do so. He should then move to put the process back on the customary diplomatic track with meetings among subordinates about stakes that begin at a considerably lower level.
Of course, Trump will not be inclined to admit he made a mistake in immediately accepting the proposed meeting. But the status of the meeting was always tenuous, and it wouldn’t be difficult to save face by blaming Kim for its derailment.
When Trump says “We’ll see what happens,” he’s trying to convince us that his position is so strong that he can afford not to be overly concerned about what happens. This may be an effective tactic in business negotiations, but international diplomacy is another matter.
The prospects for the success of a meeting between Kim and Trump aren’t promising, but talking is always better than war. Trump has an opportunity to put the talking back on track. He should do so unless he is willing to risk a catastrophic nuclear exchange long before it becomes absolutely inevitable. And that’s the direction we’re currently heading.