Editorials

Trump rolls the dice on North Korea

It seems like only yesterday that U.S. President Donald Trump was locked in a war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. From the floor of the United Nations no less, Trump denounced Kim as “rocket man,” warning him that his irresponsible behavior would unleash “fire and fury the likes of which the world had never seen.” Kim responded by calling Trump “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard” that he would “surely and definitely tame … with fire.”

Last week, however, brought the stunning news that Kim had told visiting South Korean envoys that he was committed to denuclearization and he was eager to meet with Trump as soon as possible. More incredibly, Trump accepted the offer, and tweeted “meeting being planned.” The staff at the White House struggled to fill in details, first walking back the acceptance, then confirming that the meeting will be held while prevaricating over conditions.

It is a remarkable reversal, one in keeping with Trump’s desire to upend the conventional wisdom, shatter shibboleths and do what none of his predecessors would have risked. As a White House official explained after the announcement, Trump is ready to “take approaches very, very different from past approaches and past presidents,” adding “President Trump made his reputation on making deals. … It made sense to accept an invitation to meet with the one person who can actually make decisions instead of repeating the, sort of, long slog of the past.”

No it does not. While we believe that talks should be pursued, talks between officials are very different from a meeting of heads of state. No North Korean leader has ever met a sitting president of the United States. Kim, along with his father and grandfather, have sought such a meeting for decades, understanding that the image of the two leaders together would confer a powerful form of legitimacy on the North Korean regime. That is precisely why other U.S. presidents have withheld that reward. President Bill Clinton faced a similar choice in the waning days of his presidency and he decided not to pursue the opportunity, although he no doubt believed — as does Trump — that he could strike a deal.

Heads of state close deals, they do not negotiate them. Kim says that he seeks the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, an end state sought by the U.S., Japan, South Korea and virtually every other country in the world. But for Kim, denuclearization does not refer just to the presence of nuclear weapons on the peninsula: if that is all it meant, he could unilaterally make it happen. By all indications, Kim seeks the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and the rolling up of the U.S. extended deterrent that covers both South Korea and Japan. That is unacceptable.

If he cannot get Trump to accept that plan — it is unlikely, even with Trump’s questioning of U.S. alliances during the presidential campaign — then Kim will likely seek acceptance of his nuclear arsenal, a state made more palatable with promises not to proliferate and not to pursue the missile technology that would put the U.S. homeland at risk. That is another unacceptable outcome.

Kim seeks to divide the U.S. from its allies in Northeast Asia. Nothing would accomplish that quicker than an agreement to shield the U.S. from North Korean threats while leaving its allies exposed. That would plant potentially fatal doubts in allies’ minds about the U.S. commitment to their defense.

It is a measure of the concern triggered by last week’s revelation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced soon thereafter that he would go to Washington in April before a Kim-Trump meeting. U.S. officials have insisted that the policy of “maximum pressure” would continue and Foreign Minister Taro Kono will meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week to get clarity on the U.S. position and demands.

For all the assurances that our two countries are marching in lockstep and are “together 100 percent” as Abe claims, it is troubling that Japanese officials had no notice of the invitation nor of Trump’s decision to accept it. It is one thing to keep adversaries off-balance; it is another when uncertainty extends to allies as well.

The looming nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been a long time in the making. New and creative thinking is needed to end the stalemate and change trajectories. But there are bold ideas and there are gambles; this is a gamble and a very risky one indeed.