Donald Trump campaigned for the White House as a master dealmaker, the sort of tough and cold-eyed business executive who wouldn’t be afraid to make a big bet if he thought he had a decent shot at even bigger payoff.
It’s not just that Trump hasn’t been able to nail down deals on domestic issues like health care, trade issues like NAFTA, or foreign policy issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s that he hasn’t really even tried, avoiding direct talks with political rivals or foreign leaders and instead preferring to simply sit on the sidelines and see what his aides could come up with.
The White House’s surprise announcement Thursday night that Trump would hold face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over his nuclear program marks a startling break from that pattern — and the first time in his presidency that Trump has been willing to try negotiating the kind of long-shot deal that candidate Trump routinely said he could make.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of Trump’s gamble, or the risks. No American president has ever met with a North Korean leader, so Trump will be granting Kim a historic concession simply by showing up to the talks. The meeting is set to take place in just two months, leaving little time for the sorts of meticulous preparations that traditionally take place before such an important summit.
Kim might not negotiate in good faith or honor a deal even if one were struck. And Trump, who has a short attention span and a desperate desire for wins, might simply get outmaneuvered by a smarter and more disciplined adversary.
Put it all together and you can get a sense of why many North Korea experts are reacting so cautiously to the White House announcement. Robert E. Kelly, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Pusan National University, argued on Twitter that Trump was dangerously naive to think he could dive headlong into a decades-old conflict and singlehandedly solve it in a manner of months.
“We can always hope,” Kelly wrote, “but it is just as reasonable to fear that Trump, the reality TV star who somehow stumbled into the presidency for which he is woefully unfit, will wander from decades of joint US-South Korea policy, about which he naturally knows nothing, and make some kind of deal for a ‘win’ that no other US official would endorse.”
Those are valid fears. Still, the prospect of face-to-face talks means there is at least a small chance of a deal, no matter how low the odds. And any direct US negotiations with North Korea are far better than the alternatives, which include the prospect of a cataclysmic war that would kill millions and leave both North and South Korea in ruins.
Trump, meanwhile, will finally get the chance to show off the negotiating skills he’s bragged about for so long. As one senior administration official told CNN’s Jim Acosta, “President Trump has made his reputation on making deals.”
Now he’ll have a shot at the biggest deal of all.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the US-North Korea talks
The new diplomatic opening comes after a weeks-long charm offensive Kim started before last month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. Kim sent a high-ranking delegation, including his sister, to the games and invited South Korean officials to visit the North.
South Korean envoys spent two days in Pyongyang earlier this week and left with a message for Washington: Kim was ready to talk about possibly giving up his nuclear program.
The offer may have left the Trump administration in a bind. Trump had spent months mocking Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” debating whether to launch a preemptive military strike against the North, and promising to “totally destroy” North Korea if Pyongyang threatened the US or its allies.
Trump had also laid out a clear precondition for talks: North Korea had to promise to give up its nuclear weapons.
“Now we are talking, and they, by the way, called up a couple of days ago. They said that, ‘We would like to talk.’ And I said, ‘So would we, but you have to de-nuke, you have to de-nuke,’” Trump said at a high-profile Washington dinner last week.
North Korea has consistently said it wouldn’t give up its nukes unless Washington stopped threatening it, accepted the legitimacy of the Kim government, and agreed to remove US troops from South Korea. North Korea said just this past Sunday that Trump’s most recent demands that it abandon its nuclear program were “preposterous.”
Yet North Korea didn’t rescind its offer of talks, leading to Thursday’s surprise announcement that Trump had agreed to them. The president said Kim’s interest in negotiations showed US sanctions were working and stressed that they would remain in place until North Korea agreed to a deal.
Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2018
The question is what kind of deal North Korea is truly willing to offer — and what kind of deal Trump is truly willing to accept.
North Korea’s nuclear program probably won’t be dismantled. Can it be contained?
Every US president since Bill Clinton has demanded that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, and every US president since Clinton has left office with the North Korean program intact and growing.
Pyongyang is now thought to have as many as 60 nukes and is in the process of building submarines capable of firing nuclear warheads while submerged. The decades-long failure of Washington’s approach to North Korea has led many experts to argue that the US should focus on containing North Korea’s nuclear program, not trying to eliminate it.
That would require Washington to accept that North Korea is a nuclear power, abandon talk of invasion and regime change, and focus on freezing Pyongyang’s nuclear program rather than eliminating it altogether. Experts say North Korea might be willing to agree to stop building more missiles and bombs, as well as testing more of what it already has, in exchange for limited sanctions relief or other concessions.
“There is no combination of sticks and carrots, sanctions and blah blah blah that mean North Korea is just going to cave and do exactly what we want them to do,” Dave Kang, the director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, told Vox in September. “We treat North Korea like it’s a problem to be solved, [but] it’s a country we have to live with.”
Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told Vox shortly after Thursday’s announcement that this kind of meeting with an American president is exactly what North Korea has wanted for decades.
“Every North Korean has wanted the president of the United States to come to North Korea,” said Lewis. “This is an enormous foreign policy priority for them; it’s about demonstrating that North Korea is an important country that is equal to all the other big countries.”
The question is what Trump will get in return — and whether it will be enough to stave off war.
Nothing in North Korea’s rhetoric or history suggests that it would be willing to abandon its nuclear program altogether without getting some major — and potentially untenable — concessions from the United States. It’s far more likely that the North would simply agree to a temporary freeze.
If that’s the deal on the table, would Trump take it? Taking too tough a line could mean the talks fail; conceding too much could spark a fierce backlash across Asia, as well as here at home.
But one thing is clear: Trump describes himself as a master dealmaker, and we’re about to learn whether he’s telling the truth.