Something approaching relief followed last week’s announcement that President Donald Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had just returned from Pyongyang with three Americans that North Korea had kidnapped. “I think he did this because I really think he wants to do something and bring that country into the real world,” Trump said of Kim, who last year sent home another American prisoner, Otto Warmbier, in a coma. (He died a short time later.)
There is no question that plans for the meeting are better than having Trump still threatening “Rocketman” with “fire and fury,” and North Korea shooting off missiles that could reach Washington. But the personal diplomacy between the two risk-loving leaders could also be dangerous.
The summit will reportedly take place without the usual infrastructure that attends high-level meetings. National Security Adviser John Bolton said there was an advantage to moving quickly: “I think one advantage of having this meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un so soon, in effect, without months and months and months of preparation is that President Trump will be able to size Kim Jong Un up and see if the commitment is real.”
In Bolton, we hear an echo of President George W. Bush peering into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soul. That didn’t exactly get us anywhere worth going.
Some have argued that it’s not just the soul that has proved confusing, but the very words leaders are using. Take the focal word “denuclearization.” If North Korea “takes bold action to quickly denuclearize,” Pompeo says, “the United States is prepared to work with North Korea to achieve prosperity on the par with our South Korean friends.” We know what denuclearization means, or at least we think we do: North Korea has to shut down and destroy its nuclear arsenal. In exchange, it will receive all the economic blessings of being a friend of America.
But not everyone agrees. According to nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein, to North Koreans, “denuclearization” is a “gradual and mutual easing of tensions,” not total disarmament. If that’s the case, even if Trump had not just reneged on a “denuclearization” agreement with Iran, the North Korean regime might not give up the one thing that has brought it a measure of security: its nukes.
So hold on to your good feelings. The June 12 meeting is the first step of a protracted process that may ultimately fail, as have many earlier thaws with North Korea, stretching back to the Clinton administration. While it is true that people of good will can usually reach agreement on even the most difficult and intractable issues, the test here is whether the parties have good will or if this is just a show performed by two leaders who love the spotlight more than they love peace. Time will tell.