It has been reported that a summit between Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has been put on the books and is expected to take place by the end of May.
On its face, this summit is a good thing. Trump and Kim have been nudging their respective nations closer to nuclear war for months, and the summit – which will purportedly focus on North Korea abandoning its nuclear ambitions – is an important first step in achieving some sort of détente between the two nations.
The summit would be an historical first. Since the Korean War which divided the peninsula into two separate nations, the United States has only ever formally recognized South Korea as a legitimate nation; North Korea has been recognized by 93 mostly-Communist countries worldwide to South Korea’s 96.
This is the largest source of tension between the United States and North Korea. North Korea believes that the United States – which allied itself with South Korea – is bent on the destruction of North Korea. Therefore, from North Korea’s standpoint, their nuclear weapons program is a vital tool not to attack the United States, but to prevent the United States from attacking.
The relationship between the United States and North Korea is long and complex, and it will take a significant amount of diplomacy and astute negotiation to quell tensions between the two nations.
Which, considering the man running the show, is a serious problem.
There is a non-zero chance that Donald Trump knows nothing of the historical context; remember, this is a man who only recently learned that Frederick Douglass is dead. (Douglass died in 1882.) Given that, it is also entirely possible that Trump will treat this summit as little more than yet another photo opportunity, a meeting he can daydream through before returning to the comfort of the White House and his regular diet of fast food and Fox News.
Assuming the summit takes place, Trump will loudly and shamelessly tout that he did something that no president – including his nemesis Barack Obama – has ever done: met with North Korea. Trump will frame it as an area in which he succeeded where his predecessors failed. And if he does manage to achieve North Korean denuclearization, he’ll probably wind up with a Nobel Peace Prize, which is as good a reason as any to stop handing those out.
What Trump likely doesn’t realize, however, is that his predecessors didn’t fail to meet with North Korea. Barack Obama expressed a willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un during his presidency (a willingness which, I might add, was quickly pounced on by conservatives as evidence that Obama was a spineless wimp when it came to foreign policy).
The reason President Obama did not meet with Kim Jong Un was because Obama had concrete and unwavering preconditions that North Korea had to meet in order to justify any formal meeting with the United States. Chief among those conditions was that North Korea had to denuclearize before any meeting; the purpose of the meeting would then be to establish a framework upon which North Korea could attempt to join the modernized world.
Trump, by contrast, is considering a meeting specifically to discuss North Korean denuclearization. He has not surpassed Obama’s achievements; he simply lowered the bar.
As of right now, there are three American citizens being detained by North Korea. The Trump administration could have requested their release as a precondition of the meeting, which would give North Korea the opportunity to demonstrate good faith. The Trump administration did not do that, nor did it offer any conditions whatsoever.
The obvious counterpoint is that if the goal is to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions, then who cares how it happens?
Well, as history has demonstrated, Kim Jong Un’s promises ought to be taken with a hefty grain of salt. The U.N. has leveled sanctions against North Korea multiple times in the past for various infractions; the sanctions have been lifted after Kim has offered assurances to change his behavior, but without fail, he returns to his old ways.
There is a distinct possibility that Trump will meet with Kim and, after receiving Kim’s assurances that North Korea will denuclearize, either offer North Korea favorable trade deals or simply ask nothing in return. But beyond that, by meeting with Kim at all, Trump is setting a dangerous precedent: he is giving Kim what he wants.
Kim’s primary ambition since taking power in North Korea is to be respected and/or feared by the United States; more than that, it is to be treated as an equal by the United States. A meeting with an American president lends Kim that legitimacy, and in return, all he has to do is promise to get rid of his nuclear arsenal.
And if things go sour down the road? We can expect Kim to revert to the mean, leaving us with the same problem as before – only this time, with a more powerful adversary.