Trump meets ‘Lit­tle Rocket Man’

Cecil Whig - - OPINION -

If you had to pick a word that best de­scribes the Trump pres­i­dency so far, it might be “sur­real.” And few de­vel­op­ments af­firm that more than news that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un plan to meet for talks this spring. Sup­pos­edly they’ll dis­cuss prospects for a de­nu­cle­arized Korean Penin­sula. Yes, “Lit­tle Rocket Man” and an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent whom Kim once re­ferred to as a “dotard” in the same room, with a po­ten­tial to make his­tory.

Fast for­ward a few years: Trump and Kim meet again, this time in Stock­holm to jointly ac­cept their No­bel Peace Prize? Sur­real in­deed. Fan­tasy? For now, yes, of course.

Nev­er­the­less, two lead­ers widely seen as vo­latile, self­ab­sorbed and bel­liger­ent have agreed to do some­thing no other sit­ting Amer­i­can pres­i­dent and North Korean leader ever have done — sit face-to-face and talk se­ri­ously about nukes. As a car­rot, Kim has dan­gled a com­mit­ment to halt nu­clear and mis­sile test­ing ahead of the talks, which are slated for the end of May.

Why now? It may be that Kim feels the vise of ampedup eco­nomic sanc­tions and sees in Trump an Amer­i­can leader who, un­like his pre­de­ces­sors, has been ex­ceed­ingly blunt with threats to “to­tally de­stroy” North Korea. Equally likely, how­ever, is Kim’s cal­cu­la­tion that Trump would agree to a meet­ing be­cause, well, he’s Trump: a pres­i­dent supremely con­fi­dent in his ne­go­ti­at­ing skills, a leader with the hubris to think he can get done what other pres­i­dents couldn’t, and to do it the Trump way — on his own. Stand down, stuffy diplo­mats.

Kim also comes to the ta­ble with a hand that his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther didn’t have: mis­siles capped with nu­clear war­heads. His pre­de­ces­sors also sought new­found le­git­i­macy through a meet­ing with an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, but they didn’t have the arsenal that Kim now has. Like his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther, Kim yearns to be per­ceived as a leader on equal foot­ing with the Amer­i­can com­man­der-in-chief. What bet­ter way to get there than a sit-down with Trump?

Trump no doubt will go into the meet­ing with vi­sions of him­self at the podium in Stock­holm. Cue the skep­ti­cism, not only of that scene but of the here and now. While the meet­ing would be un­prece­dented, any flir­ta­tious Py­ongyang of­fer to de­nu­cle­arize isn’t. In 2005, North Korea pledged to aban­don its nu­clear weapons pro­gram dur­ing the “six-party talks.” Three years later, Py­ongyang restarted its pro­gram.

The hasty timetable could also prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has just two months to pre­pare. The State De­part­ment’s chief North Korea ne­go­tia­tor, Joseph Yun, is on his way out, and the ad­min­is­tra­tion has balked at nom­i­nat­ing an­other ex­pe­ri­enced ne­go­tia­tor, Vic­tor Cha, the am­bas­sador to South Korea, The New York Times re­ported.

None of that may mat­ter to Trump, with his pen­chant for winging it. But his as­sent to a meet­ing is in­deed a gam­ble, and the stakes couldn’t be much higher. Trump has al­ready made it clear that the only ac­cept­able out­come is de­nu­cle­ariza­tion. Will Kim be will­ing to re­lin­quish the very nu­clear weapons that give him so much clout? If talks end and Trump doesn’t get what he wants, Kim will walk away with strength­ened le­git­i­macy — and a nu­clear weapons pro­gram with Amer­i­can cities as pri­mary tar­gets. Trump will walk away boast­ing of his rea­son­able­ness in meet­ing with Kim. That could give him flex­i­bil­ity for what­ever comes in the fu­ture — such as a pre-emp­tive U.S. strike if North Korea be­comes more men­ac­ing.

Trump crafted a cam­paign per­sona as the quin­tes­sen­tial deal­maker. Up un­til now, his for­eign pol­icy track record says oth­er­wise. Meet­ing with Kim gives him a chance to prove his crit­ics wrong. We hope he can. The likely al­ter­na­tive is a re­turn to the threat of nu­clear war.

This ed­i­to­rial orig­i­nally ap­peared in the Chicago Tri­bune on March 5.

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