This is a local re-post of something I wrote for The National Interest earlier this month. This essay expands on what I have been saying on Twitter for last two weeks since Trump – or rather foreign envoys speaking on behalf of the US president (WTH?!) – agreed to the summit. Namely, that Donald Trump is woefully, obviously, embarrassingly unqualified to go head-to-head with Kim Jong Un in a serious bargaining environment.
Normally it would not make much difference that Trump himself is clueless about Korea, because staff work would comprise most of the summit effort. But with only 8 weeks before the summit, much of the burden of negotiating falls on Trump himself. And since it is a summit, presumably the the really big issues between the US and NK are on the tables – nukes, a peace treaty, recognition, etc. Does anyone really believe a reality TV star who doesn’t read, watches five hours of TV a day, and relies more on family and friends than technical staff is qualified to negotiate these sorts of questions in just 8 weeks? Wake up, everybody.
To be sure, the summit will likely just be a bust, with Trump skylarking about how he’d like to build a Trump Tower in Pyongyang as Kim gives a long-winded speech about US ‘war crimes.’ But it might also go badly wrong as Trump veers wildly off-course and trades away US forces here for some weak-tea de-nuclearization deal the Norks will cheat on. Honestly, I am amazed the South Korea government thought it a good idea to put Trump – the guy who just 3 weeks ago gave this insane speech – in a room with Kim. What is going on?
The full essay follows the jump.
The last week has been yet another head-spinner in the Trump administration’s interaction with North Korea. Six months ago US President Donald Trump threatened to ‘totally destroy North Korea.’ Then suddenly he agreed to a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just forty-five minutes after the idea was first pitched to him by South Korean envoys. Everyone has whiplash, which is almost never good for policy.
All week on cable news and Twitter the Korea analyst community has prevaricated over this, as it seems far too fast and too unlikely. My own sense is broadly the same: This is moving so quickly, that the possibility of the summit stalemating or falling into an acrimonious back-and-forth between Trump and Kim is much higher than normal. Traditionally summits occur at the end of years of diplomacy and staff work in which the devils in the details are hammered out. The heads of state show up at the conclusion to nail down a few particulars, lend their prestige to the proceedings, and finalize the deal.
By contrast Trump is suggesting to meet Kim in just nine weeks. That is simply not enough time, especially if a grand bargain on peninsular affairs is really in cards. Previous efforts on North Korea’s nuclear weapons – the Agreed Framework and the Six Party Talks – took years of effort and still fell through. (For an account of how difficult the Six Party Talks were, try this.) If the summit really does happen by the end of May, the two sides will simply not have had enough time to close much of the enormous strategic and ideological divide between the US and North Korea. That will leave much that Trump himself must do, personally, in the room with Kim. To put it gently, it is huge question whether Trump is really up to this.
Trump defenders are already suggesting he has the chops for this, because he is a great negotiator practicing the ‘art of the deal.’ But we need to be more candid here; the stakes are far too high to indulge Trump’s reality TV persona. Much in Trump’s character suggests he is not, in fact, ready for this. He does not read, including the presidential daily brief if rumor is true. He almost certainly knows very little about Korea. He watches enormous amounts of television. His grip on policy detail is notoriously thin and error-prone. He lies regularly. He is moody, erratic, unpredictable, and impulsive. He dislikes professional and technical staff and has an obvious preference for amateur friends and family. He is absorbed with his vendettas, feuds, scandal, and so on. His attention span is short, and he is prone to wander wildly off-script. He is given to rage, profanity, and insult when challenged.
Kim, by contrast, will almost certainly be a tough customer. No one could survive the brutal backrooms of Pyongyang politics without being a skilled bureaucratic knife-fighter. Kim is, to the surprise of many who suspected a young man with no time in the party or army would not last, overcame his inauspicious beginnings. He has culled the army brass, assassinated his brother-in-law, rapidly finished the North’s nuclear and missile programs, and gotten the moribund economy growing again – all while sanctions have piled up. Trump has never dealt with anyone or thing like this, and his usual negotiating tactics of bluster, threats, lawsuits, insults, and so on will not work. If this is to succeed, Trump will really have to buckle down and prepare. That is, to be generous, highly unlikely.
As a result, there is a not insignificant possibility that Trump will be outplayed by someone who knows the issues far better than he, or that the event will descend into a shouting match as two characters unaccustomed to being challenged tear into each other, as they did last year in the media (‘rocket man’ vs the ‘dotard’). If I had to guess, this outcome is unlikely, but it is still far more likely than in a normal summit preceded by proper staff work involving a president intellectually committed to the process. Most likely, the summit will be a bust, in which the genuinely deep issues between the two sides go unresolved given just nine weeks to overcome them. A face-saving communique could be released in which each side gives up something small, but no grand bargain would emerge.
But even that is a victory for the North, because a meeting of its leader and the US president on equal terms is a huge propaganda coup, something the North has sought for decades. That Trump has already given this carrot of US prestige away for nothing suggests just how woefully unprepared he is for this. North Korea doves keep saving we should the talks a chance, but consider how unlike any other summit this is so far, and it is only a week since it was announced:
No consultation with relevant stakeholders was done. Trump just decided to do this at the drop of a hat. Even his staff did not know. South Korean conservatives will be apoplectic if Trump trades away US forces in Korea for a weak-tea denuclearization deal the North might renege on. US hawks in Congress and the DC think-tank community would fight back too. Trump is hugely unpopular in South Korea; if a deal looks like it threatens South Korean security out of Trump’s reckless insouciance, desire to put tariffs on South Korea, or to provoke Seoul to pay the US more in the special measures agreement this year, it could well provoke an existential crisis in the alliance.
Trump lacks the staff for this. Not only does Trump only have nine weeks to put this all together, he is woefully under-staffed for it. Astonishingly, he fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just after he agreed to this momentous meeting. The national security advisor and chief of staff look to be on their way out. The State Department has been decimated by Trump and Tillerson. There is no US ambassador to South Korea, no Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, no point person on Korea in the White House or State Department. So few Korean experts are at the State Department that Secretary Tillerson mispronounced Kim Jong Un’s name – ‘Kim Yong Oon’ – for fourteen months without being corrected. When the South Korean foreign minister came to Washington this week, she met Ivanka Trump regarding North Korea. This is almost surreal.
The North Koreans have still not accepted the offer, nor even said that an offer was made. It increasingly looks like the South Korean officials who met Trump overhyped Kim’s words to them. Again, it is all moving much too fast.
Trump decided to accept this momentous summit offer after just forty-five minutes with no staff consultation. This is classic, impulsive Trump, and is a recipe for disaster in a tough negotiating environment. It displays his obvious disdain for expertise. Indeed, accepting this offer and pushing through his tariffs look more like Trump declaring independence from his establishmentarian staff rather than any real concern for these policy areas.
That in turn brings up that no one can say with any confidence that Trump is not doing this for all the wrong reasons, which in turn could encourage him to make bad decisions at the meetings. Trump is under investigation, bedeviled by scandal, likely faces an impeachment investigation if the Democrats do well in this fall’s midterm election, and loves TV coverage and attention. A grand-bargain deal with North Korea to be marketed as a ‘win’ at home might change the subject from Stormy Daniels and all the rest. To get to that, who knows what he might put on the table?
In brief, the summit should be delayed until the US side has done a lot more work, or cancelled, because an outcome good for the US is quite unlikely. If it goes badly, it could set could set us on the road to war as Trump concludes diplomacy has failed and hawks around him like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton concur. If it stalemates (the mostly likely outcome), it is still a propaganda win for the North because of the optics of Trump meeting Kim as equals. The only way the summit benefits the US is if Trump pulls off a grand bargain. Little in Trump’s character, staffing troubles, or the highly compacted nine-week timeframe suggests this is a likely outcome. It is all just too risky. The best move is just to cancel it.