Well, that’s one way to shift the attention from payoffs to porn stars and potential trade wars.
I refer, natch, to President Trump’s stunning announcement Thursday that he’d accept Kim Jong Un’s snap invitation for direct talks over North Korea’s nuclear program – which may be held within two months.
Gone (for now) are the mutual threats and insults that had the world worrying whether Trump would unleash a preemptive war on the Korean Peninsula. The president deserves credit for the tough sanctions policy that pushed Kim to shift gears.
But Trump’s disdain for expertise, and conviction that he is all-knowing, make him supremely vulnerable to Kim’s manipulations. Trump’s tweets already show his slim grasp of North Korea’s wiles and intentions.
So, when (or if) Trump and Kim meet, we can expect a great photo op of two men with impressive hairdos. More than that, if the president’s ego trumps acumen, the summit won’t end well.
The main problem is not that the summit is being convened too quickly. If Trump had a capable team that he listened to, and if he set clear, attainable goals, he could manage the risk. At minimum, the two leaders could take each other’s measure and probe each other’s positions.
Unfortunately, Trump disdains expertise and his Korea bench is depleted. A high-level summit would ordinarily be carefully prepared, with a special emissary doing advance work. Instead, the U.S. point person on North Korea, special envoy Joseph Yun, just announced his retirement (as have many top State Department officials) and has not been replaced.
The administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea, having inexplicably nixed a terrific choice, Victor Cha. The Senate has yet to confirm the top diplomat handling East Asia.
Trump didn’t even bother to give his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, a heads up about the summit. Only hours before the announcement, Tillerson was dismissing the likelihood of talks. (Trump publicly chastised Tillerson in the past for talking about diplomacy with Pyongyang.)
Who in Asia can take Tillerson seriously when the president humiliates him so carelessly? Not Kim.
Clearly all this is irrelevant to Trump. When asked by Fox News in November about vacancies at the State Department, the president famously retorted: “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”
With his unshakable belief in his omniscience, the president may ignore preparation. This would be hugely risky, says the Brookings Institution’s Robert Einhorn, a key negotiator with North Korea in the Clinton administration.
“This can’t be a free-flowing encounter. You can’t go in and wing it,” says Einhorn. “The North Koreans will have thought this through, will have a game plan. Trump doesn’t know any of the details.”
Trump’s lack of grasp was clear when he tweet-bragged Thursday that Kim “talked about denuclearization” with the South Koreans, “not just a freeze.” The president was referring to the U.S. demand that North Korea must completely denuclearize, not just freeze its program at current levels, which would leave it with dozens of weapons and delivery systems.
However, South Korean officials told the New York Times that Kim is proposing the same formula that scotched previous negotiations: In return for supposed denuclearization, Kim wants U.S. forces removed from South Korea and an end to the U.S. nuclear shield that protects South Korea and Japan.
Such a proposal is a nonstarter. Ending the U.S.-South Korean alliance would leave the peninsula vulnerable to Pyongyang’s military. Especially since North Korea has lied before about dismantling its nukes.
So it will be vital that Trump enter the summit with a realistic grasp of its prospects and limitations.
If Trump were a normal president, one might assume he would aim for a limited outcome: Take the measure of Kim, exchange views, put down certain markers – and probe exactly what Kim means when he says he will denuclearize if North Korea’s security is guaranteed.
Then Trump could judge whether or not complete denuclearization is a realistic U.S. goal. Serious negotiations might follow.
But Trump is not a normal president. He thinks diplomacy means going mano a mano with autocrats. Never mind that he has been played by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, both of whom have his number.
And Trump has made clear he doesn’t want drawn-out talks with Pyongyang. Yet he has failed to demonstrate – whether in trade, in Israeli-Palestinian peace, in Syria, or elsewhere – that he has mastered the art of making international deals.
So, at best when Trump and Kim meet, we can expect a great photo op. At worst, Trump may be flattered into giving away leverage for nothing. Or the talks might deteriorate into new insults.
If we are really lucky, the president might wise up, listen to his briefers, and jump-start serious negotiations. Sadly, that seems about as likely as Trump giving up his tweets.