A Demagogue and a Dictator Walk into a Negotiation

Big week this week, y’all, things are Really Happening Out Here, but I’m gonna keep it to just one issue and it ain’t nothing new: North Korea. Donald Trump has agreed to a meeting with Kim Jong Un. Just like a double rainbow all the way across the sky, we must ask: What does it mean?

For the last few, I dunno, decades of US policy, North Korea has been DTPIBT (down to participate in bilateral talks) but the US has always imposed conditions – there would be no negotiations until North Korea abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Nothing to discuss – ditch the nukes, or deal with sanctions. Now, though, Trump seems to have thrown that out the window.

Why would Kim Jong Un want to sit down to talk? One, it offers him an enormous amount of legitimacy – this is the big kids’ table. He’s sitting down with an American President, and he didn’t have to humiliate himself to do it – he just had to stick to his guns (nukes). It also buys him time – perhaps to continue developing ICBMs capable of hitting the US, despite assurances that testing would stop – while the negotiations are ongoing. So between optics and taking a little pressure off the situation while they continue to covertly develop weapons, this looks like a good option for the North Korean regime.

Why would Trump want to sit down to talk? A little more difficult to discern. From his perspective, he’s the greatest dealmaker ever, and if he could only get in the room with Kim he could SURELY convince him to drop the nukes. Plus, if he did, he’d be a hero. But aside from Trump’s delusions of grandeur, even if you accept that the negotiations will be useless, insofar as Kim has promised to stop testing and you believe you can accurately monitor that, taking the meeting buys the US time to build international consensus on further sanctions while keeping the North Koreans from advancing any further on ICBMs.

But it’s not gonna happen. Why? Well, first, where are they gonna meet? Kim Jong Un has never left North Korea, and he isn’t about to start now. Trump going to North Korea is a non-starter. They could do it in the DMZ, but it’s not exactly a prime meeting location, what with all the artillery aimed at it. So just the location of the meeting could be enough to derail the whole thing.

But second, turns out, the way this came about was that Trump met with a South Korean diplomat who mentioned Kim Jong Un’s desire to meet with Trump, and Trump, apparently unaware that such a meeting has been on the table since before his presidency, said “Yeah I’ll do it, tell the press,” which they then did. But the White House has since said “The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea.” Which is what the policy previously was. Good job. #fpf