The bombastic, belligerent, inexperienced and unpredictable leader of a nuclear-armed nation, a man who flouts international norms and agreements, is scheduled to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore on Tuesday. What could go wrong? How much time do you have?
President Donald Trump’s on-again, off-again summit with Kim has been hastily slapped together. The necessary groundwork has not been laid. The Trump administration’s stated goal — full denuclearization by North Korea — is unrealistic. Kim is said to know the intricacies of his country’s nuclear program, including the technical aspects, in great detail; Trump, by contrast, said Thursday that “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude.” Critics say the meeting itself is an enormous concession to the North Koreans, for which the United States has received exactly zero in return.
Nonetheless, I have been and remain strongly in favor of the summit. I believe there is reason to anticipate that it will do no harm — and to hope it might do some good.
Refusing to talk one-on-one with North Korea has been U.S. policy for my entire lifetime. What has this stance produced? Despite our studied silence, despite the multi-party talks that led to agreements that were not worth the paper they were printed on, despite round after round of sanctions, despite all of our threats and inducements and promises — despite everything we have tried, North Korea has mastered the nuclear cycle, built an arsenal of nuclear weapons and tested ballistic missiles of surprising sophistication and range.
I would venture to say that not talking has been a failure. Talking might not work, either, but surely it is worth the attempt.
Those who criticize Trump for naively giving Kim something his father and grandfather dearly wanted — a sit-down negotiation with the president of the United States, as equals — are missing the point, or perhaps have not been paying attention. Whether we like it or not, North Korea is a de facto member of the nuclear club. And as the old American Express ads used to say, membership has its privileges.
A country that is trying to develop nuclear weapons and may be within reach of doing so, such as Iran, is one thing. In blunt terms that Trump would understand, such a country can be pushed around to a certain extent by more powerful states. However, a country that already has a tested arsenal of functional nuclear weapons, and that may be able to mount such weapons on missiles, which is North Korea’s status right now — well, that’s another thing entirely.
The greatest benefit from the run-up to the summit is that the Trump administration has stopped talking about some kind of limited “bloody-nose” military strike that would show Pyongyang how serious we are. Even John Bolton, Trump’s itchy-trigger-fingered national security adviser, has been quiet. There is reason to hope that at least some administration officials realize such talk of an attack is simply insane.
Even without nukes, North Korea has enough conventional firepower to kill many thousands of innocent civilians in South Korea and potentially Japan. With its nuclear weapons, Kim and his generals can trigger an Armageddon. It is possible to at least argue in favor of conventional war now in order to prevent a possible nuclear war later. There is no valid logical or moral argument, however, for nuclear war now to prevent a theoretical nuclear war at some point in the future.
North Korea is one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, a hermit kingdom ruled by a fanatical and paranoid regime. Its leadership is not suicidal, though, and Kim is clearly envious of Western technology and affluence. I am skeptical that the regime will ever agree to complete denuclearization, but I’m less skeptical about a U.S. policy of containment and wary coexistence. The truth is that we have already accepted the fact of a nuclear North Korea for more than a decade.
It may be that Trump’s true goal is a Nobel-quality photo op, and I have no problem if that’s his motive. He seems to finally understand that Kim is not going to sign away all of his nukes and missiles on the spot, even after the two leaders have had a few minutes of chitchat about their mutual acquaintance, Dennis Rodman.
It is possible, however, that Trump and Kim can agree on some ambiguous language that the Americans understand one way and the North Koreans another. And they might also agree to talk more and threaten less — an outcome the whole world should applaud.
Eugene Robinson is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post.