President Trump’s high-stakes nature has finally entered the world of diplomacy. In an unprecedented attempt to reverse the deterioration of the United States’ relationship with North Korea, he recently agreed to a meeting with Kim Jong-un. While this high-level meeting between the two heads of state should reduce the risk of war in the short term, the gamble may increase the chances of ultimate strategic failure if Trump doesn’t tread cautiously.
Last week, an envoy from South Korea informed the President that Kim Jong-un wanted to meet face-to-face to discuss his country’s commitment to denuclearization. Trump accepted on the spot, shocking both the visiting diplomats and his own advisors, and set a May deadline for the meeting. According to the South Korean envoy, the North Korean leader promised to delay nuclear tests or missile launches until after the encounter.
Until the talks happen, the crisis will probably not escalate any further, which will lower the immediate chances for fatal miscalculation. The major concern during the recent standoff was a false alarm from a misinterpreted missile launch or test detonation. With hardliners at the helms of both countries, the chances that such a mistake could become a full blown war have been alarmingly high.
A lesser, but still real, risk was a targeted strike aimed at toppling the Kim Jong-un regime and his nuclear program, an operation that could have easily spun out of control. Both of these scenarios, at least for the time being, are much less likely now that the leaders have agreed to meet. Californians and Hawaiians can breathe a temporary sigh of relief.
However, with the Kim regime, things are never so simple. Experts from across the political spectrum have raised concerns about the risks of a top-level meeting with North Korea. The first is that the meeting becomes de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power. No U.S. President has ever met with any North Korean leader, as the United States does not officially recognize the DPRK as a state. If Trump goes to meet Kim Jong-un, he risks giving the the dictator credibility.
This, in turn, could undermine America’s support of South Korea. If North Korea gains this recognition, they could use it to wield more diplomatic clout in the international arena. They could use it to open up trade routes, form alliances, and counter the U.S.’s agenda within international organizations like the U.N. and ASEAN.
That being said, there is a lot of positive that could come out of the meeting. Trump’s brand of top-down diplomacy could work well for the United States if coordination is maintained with South Korea throughout the entire process, and if clear expectations are set that would lead to political costs if the President fails. Cutting out the State Department, as Trump has done, could eliminate the miscommunication that comes with using a middle-man, but it also runs the risk of Trump being underprepared for the mind games of Kim Jong-un. The State Department is filled with North Korea specialists that Trump could greatly benefit from.
Typically, the State Department would be laying the groundwork for a meeting with the head of state of a hostile country for months, if not years, in advance, and they would negotiate expectations, goals, as well as work with the President to create a game plan to achieve as much from the talks as possible. Trump now has two months and an emaciated State Department to prepare for these high-pressure talks. While creating a successful plan of action within this time frame is possible, the odds are low, particularly when the United States does not have a confirmed Secretary of State, an ambassador to South Korea, or even a special representative for North Korea.
Trump moved to start this process by announcing that the United States needs ‘concrete actions’ before the meeting occurs. The White House followed up on Sunday declaring that no concessions will be made for the meeting. President Trump must continue to signal his expectations and intentions to make sure the meeting is a productive one. A failure to do so could easily lead to a diplomatic failure for the United States, which would discredit American diplomacy around the world, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will “need to buy more ammunition.”
The hope of the administration, of the American people, and indeed of anyone hoping to avoid nuclear war, is that North Korea begins denuclearization and sees it through to completion. This, however, is unlikely, as North Koreans view denuclearization as a mutual forfeiting of nuclear arms between two nations. Duyeon Kim, a Seoul based expert, explains:
“During the Six Party Talks (from 2003 to 2008), Pyongyang demanded that the language in agreements (between the Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States) refer to “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” instead of “denuclearization of North Korea” as originally planned. This showed the North’s lingering suspicion that American tactical nuclear weapons were still stationed in South Korea, even though they were withdrawn in 1991. Moreover, past statements suggest that Kim Jong-un’s regime wants arms control talks with Washington, and might denuclearize if both sides reciprocally reduced and eventually eliminated their nuclear weapons.”
In diplomacy, as in law, definitions mean everything. American perception of words like “denuclearization,” “threat,” and “security,” differ from North Koreans’ in the context of this conflict, since a future Korean War would take place in their homeland, as the previous one did. It will be crucial for diplomats and the leaders of both countries to be on the same page. Time spent correcting misperceptions, particularly within such a small timeframe, will be time wasted. Trump and his team must start to define these terms as soon as possible. They need to be the ones framing the debate and setting the definitions of success, otherwise we will be playing on Kim’s terms, not ours.
There is one true wild card in this scenario that needs to be accounted for: the fiery personalities of both leaders. As a businessman and foreign policy novice, President Trump is not familiar with the intricacies of Korea-American relations. He is known for his quick, and sometimes, brash decisions, which could create a miscalculation between him and Kim Jong-un.
The North Korean leader has his own propensity for showmanship, which will almost certainly cause a battle of personalities. If President Trump does his research, listens to State Department specialists, sets the agenda and announces his Administration’s goals, then he could go down as one of the greatest negotiators in presidential history. On the other hand, failure would put us right back to square one, at best, and more likely would deepen the crisis or even start a war on the Korean Peninsula. Let’s hope he plans ahead.