Will Trump’s North Korea Gamble Succeed?

One of my readers has challenged me to comment on the upcoming meeting between Trump and the North Korean dictator, Kim. So here goes:

First, if Trump is able to negotiate an honorable peace treaty with North Korea, including a verifiable elimination or freeze on nuclear weapons and reduced potential for military conflict, I will happily endorse him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Sadly though that is a very remote possibility. What is much more likely is that the effort will end in a total diplomatic failure and the Korean Peninsula will become a much more dangerous and unstable place.

The failure I anticipate will be almost wholly the Trump Administration’s incompetence, arrogance, and lack of any viable diplomatic strategy. Without even knowing what may have happened behind the scenes Trump has surely already been played by Kim. “The Dear Leader” wants North Korea and himself to be seen on the world stage as equals of the US and its President. Trump has given him that. It only goes down hill from there.

If or when they meet Kim will come to the negotiating table with a set of strategic goals and objectives that only he knows. He is smart, rational (though ruthless), and will already know the intimate details of how Trump acts, what his hot buttons and weaknesses are, and how to manipulate him. Kim will play that. Trump will know almost nothing about Kim, even how old he is, or what his motives and intentions in sitting down are. That plus the fact that Kim is an absolute dictator gives him a stronger hand. He has final authority. Trump is only a wannabe dictator whose every move will be praised as pure genius by his Republican base and vilified by those who realize he is unfit for the Office, whether they be Republican, Democrat, or Independent.

The first major problem with Trump’s approach is the timeline. This is not a real estate deal. It take a lot of preparation and lower level negotiations so when the heads of state meet most issues are already ginned up and there are no surprises. Advanced preparation is especially critical when the stakes are high and the leaders don’t know each other. Our State Department has literally been a chaotic basket case since Trump took office. There hasn’t been time for necessary preparation to have happened even if State knew what it was doing. We don’t even have enough seasoned senior diplomats in that part of the world to work the initiative effectively.

Another virtual guarantee of failure is naive and unrealistic expectations. Kim will never ever give up his existing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Regardless of what he says and Trump wants to believe those are his strongest cards and there is absolutely no rational reason in his mind to give them up. Trust this US President to honor an agreement?? Trump on the other hand goes into the negotiation having publicly declared that nothing short of total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is acceptable.  Unless Trump backs off that condition there is no deal to be had.  My guess is that Kim is probably making conciliatory overtures just to lure the President into negotiating with him as an equal while the world watches.

I would not expect the public to know the detailed agenda of such a historic event.  But from Trump’s rhetoric about this meeting, his obsession with personal accolades, and his behavior on every other important initiative, he will arrive unprepared, self centered, and without any kind of US strategic focus. Then there is his support team.  Maybe that will be an even bigger problem. Since the talent pool at State is so depleted Mike Pompeo and John Bolton will likely be the only key staff members participating with him. Neither has in depth diplomatic experience in Asia. And both have a history of war mongering much like Trump. So there will not be any rational adults on the American side with a diplomatic vision of how to bridge the divide between the parties.

One of two outcomes of Trump meeting Kim are most likely:

The meeting will not occur at all or negotiations will break down very quickly. When Trump discovers that North Korea will not simply surrender to his will he may become much more aggressive and return to the war threatening rhetoric he used before. Though the Chinese government is not at the table it is a critical player in the event. Xi could conclude based on Trump’s behavior that there is no mutually acceptable and achievable solution. Since the Chinese government does not want the Kim regime to collapse they may decide to call Trump’s bluff, harden their own position against US threats, and continue to prop up Kim. They may even adopt a stronger military posture against Trump threats to force him to back off. Kim will keep his missiles and bombs as well as probably resume similar belligerent rhetoric.

Having short circuited the normal slow methodical diplomatic path toward mutual accommodation and compromise there will be no logical and peaceful next steps to follow. The danger of miscalculation or misunderstanding will substantially increase the potential for military conflict, accidental or otherwise.

Alternately, Kim might actually agree to some kind of long term timetable for denuclearization in exchange for significant near term relief from sanctions. The Chinese will quickly endorse that approach. In that case the devil will definitely be in the details of what denuclearization means, the time lines for implementation, mediation help from the international community, access to sensitive sites, inspection protocols, and disposal of fissionable materials.

I don’t believe for an instant that Kim will actually follow through with the concessions necessary for a real denuclearization agreement. He may just play to Trump’s ego and obsession with making a deal to buy more time to work his own longer term strategy. Whatever else you may think of Kim, his personal priority is self preservation and having North Korea accepted as a nuclear power in the world community. Denuclearization does not fit anywhere in that plan. I think in this matchup Kim is playing chess with China as a coach while Trump is playing checkers.

So if there is an announcement of a fundamental breakthrough agreement I will immediately wonder what secret binding concession Trump made to achieve it. Of course if the Congress remains in Republican hands this fall we will likely never learn what the real terms are, get an objective assessment of the US security benefits of such an agreement, or have serious oversight of the Trump Administration in implementing it.


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