Trump’s North Korea gamble

This is stunning: President Donald Trump reportedly has accepted an invitation from Kim Jong Un for a summit in Pyongyang, North Korea’s grand capital of empty avenues.

It’s also, I think, a dangerous gamble and a bad idea.


I can’t believe I’m saying that. For many years, over several trips to North Korea, I’ve argued for direct talks between the United States and North Korea, and it’s certainly better to be engaging the North than bombing it. If the choice is talk versus missiles, I’ll go with the talk.

But the proper way to hold a summit is with careful preparation to make sure that the meeting advances peace – and certainly that it serves some purpose higher than simply legitimizing Kim’s regime.

Kim and Trump are both showmen with a flair for the dramatic and unexpected. That would make a summit thrilling – but create great risks if everything turned out wrong.

What North Korean leaders have craved for many years is international respect and credibility; they want to be treated as equals by the Americans, so a scene of Trump and Kim standing side by side would constitute a triumph for Pyongyang. The North Koreans have long sought direct relations with senior U.S. officials. In the past, they sometimes achieved this by bringing in Americans (such as Bill Clinton after he left office) as a condition for freeing U.S. citizens whom they had detained.

So a visit by a sitting U.S. president to North Korea would be a huge gift to Kim, and it’s puzzling that our Great Dealmaker should give up so much right off the bat. It’s just plain dizzying for Trump to go from threatening in September to “totally destroy” North Korea, and later saying that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim’s, to planning a cozy summit meeting. The more normal procedure would be, first, to negotiate our way toward the summit and make sure that we extract every possible concession, and, second, make sure that the summit serves the larger goals of resolving the nuclear crisis.

That would mean first dispatching diplomats to Pyongyang to lay the groundwork and see what kind of a deal can be worked out – and, of course, to win the release of the three U.S. detainees in North Korea. Send H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, or Mike Pompeo, the CIA director. (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would also be a possibility, but the North Koreans have scoffed to me that he isn’t a player in Washington.)

Sherpas from each side will be preparing for the summit in the coming months to work out deliverables, but by committing to make the trip by May, Trump has given up leverage and bargaining power. He’s going, which is something the North Koreans enormously want.

Frankly, another concern about a Trump-Kim summit is that our president will impetuously agree to some harebrained scheme to get a deal. (“Withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and from Okinawa? No problem, if you’ll build a wall for me.”)

Trump has sometimes leapt into commitments in Washington meetings, only to have aides later explain that he didn’t mean what he said, but it would be far more problematic to make an inadvertent or foolish commitment to North Korea. We’ve seen with the imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs that Trump doesn’t always follow the counsel of aides or seem to think through his actions, and North Korea is a far more challenging problem.

For Trump, this announcement also has the benefit of changing the topic of the headlines away from a porn actress and a Russia investigation. Maybe Trump has thought this summit through, or maybe he just wants to change the subject.

We also need to reassure our allies and partners in Asia, particularly South Korea and Japan, that we’re not going to willy-nilly abandon them as part of some deal with North Korea. Trump should include them in the discussions and planning.

Still, it’s encouraging that Kim issued this invitation, that he doesn’t object to resumption of U.S. military exercises, and that he apparently is talking about suspending missile and nuclear tests. The last is the most important: If he will suspend testing, then there may be a deal to be done.

Such a deal would involve North Korea giving up its nuclear program (and halting all testing) in exchange for ending sanctions and normalizing relations, with some commitments from North Korea on human rights as well.

One obvious question: Does Trump get credit for pushing the North Koreans to make concessions, such as suspension of testing?

The answer, I think, is maybe he does, in two respects.

First, Trump raised the economic pressure on North Korea with additional sanctions and extra support from China, and the pain was visible when I visited North Korea in September. Kim has tried to make rising living standards a hallmark of this leadership, and the sanctions have threatened that pillar of his legitimacy.

Second, Trump’s talk about military strikes may or may not have rattled North Korea, but they certainly horrified South Korea. The upshot was South Korea’s deft diplomatic outreach to North Korea, leading to the North Korean promise to suspend testing.

So give Trump’s approach some credit. But there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about where all this leads. Nobody has ever made money betting on North Korean moderation, and Kim may have unrealistic ideas about what the United States will agree to. If Kim thinks that Trump will agree to pull U.S. troops out of the Korean Peninsula, then the summit could, er, blow up.

We still don’t really know what Kim’s expectations are, and a failed summit could trigger new escalations on each side, leaving us worse off than where we started. There’s still speculation among experts that Kim would like to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test to prove that he has missile and nuclear programs that can work as he says, and one can imagine him following a failed summit with such an atmospheric test.

For all the uncertainties, one can now envision a path forward between the United States and North Korea. It’s an exciting way forward – but it may be a dead end, at a precipice. I wish the path began with extensive discussions at the national security adviser level, and only after that a summit, but at least it suggests a recognition on both sides that the way forward lies with talks rather than tanks.

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