Donald Trump said in an interview with Reuters this week that he was prepared to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. There is certainly room for more proactive strategic thinking as North Korea rushes towards further nuclear weapons capability, but a presidential summit belongs in the “very bad idea” category. Here’s why.
1. Kim won’t abandon nuclear weapons. This has been obvious to anyone who has negotiated with the North over the past 25 years, but Pyongyang helpfully erased any doubt by conducting four nuclear tests since 2006, and is poised to carry out a fifth in the near future. North Korea changed its constitution in 2012 to enshrine its nuclear weapons status, and the Korean Workers’ Party Congress reaffirmed that position last month. No level of real estate negotiating acumen is going to change that.
2. A presidential summit would legitimize the North’s nuclear status. Pyongyang has declared that it would be prepared to enter into arms control negotiations with the United States as a fellow nuclear weapons state. The United States would have to acknowledge Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons status, cease sanctions, end the nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea, end criticism of the North’s human rights abuses, and have the president personally guarantee these commitments in an agreement with the North Korean leader. These have been the North’s demands since at least 2002, when I was with our delegation as we confronted the regime with evidence of its cheating on the previous Agreed Framework.
3. Our allies would lose confidence in extended deterrence. If the plan is to get Tokyo and Seoul to go nuclear, this would be an effective shortcut. In the past, Trump said he would be open to this, but I doubt he really meant it.
4. Kim would control the reality show. Kim Jong Un does not do summits outside of North Korea, even with erstwhile ally China. And as Madeleine Albright, Jimmy Carter, and numerous other leaders have found, Kim will stage-manage the show to ensure maximum propaganda advantage for his regime. The narrative would be that of a tribute mission to the Great Marshall….
5. The summit would cause despair for millions of suffering North Koreans. North Korea’s horrific human rights record has finally seen a growing crescendo of criticism, including a damning report by a United Nations commission of inquiry, U.S. legislation, and greater pressure from Asia and Europe. The North would use a U.S. presidential summit to dissipate that momentum and to deflate the meager hope growing in the hearts of the North Korean people.
6. It was Barack Obama’s idea. The first presidential candidate to campaign on a promise to meet unconditionally with Kim Jong Un was Barack Obama. After reviewing the negotiating record with the North and receiving the intelligence briefings that President George W. Bush had received, Obama dropped the idea like a hot potato. Trump would be wise to do the same — as soon as possible.