So Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are planning a summit. What could possibly go wrong?
The two countries haven’t had significant, high-level talks in years and, as White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasised on Friday, a meeting between the two leaders themselves could be the fastest way to turn around what has become an increasingly dangerous impasse.
But if Trump doesn’t play his cards wisely, and if his decision to accept Kim’s summit offer was as hasty as the details out in public now suggest, he could risk unnecessarily elevating the North Korean leader’s global status, setting up a diplomatic breakdown, and rushing other — possibly military — action to make up for it.
Summit sceptics generally cite the problem of legitimacy as a main concern. For Trump, one big trap could be the optics. Does he really want to stand should to shoulder with a leader his administration has denounced as a brutal, ruthless dictator who can’t be trusted? What if Kim insists the summit be held in North Korea’s capital?
“Kim isn’t inviting Trump to relinquish his nuclear weapons. He’s inviting him to be treated as an equal to the United States of America — a goal sought by every Kim since North Korea began its nuclear programme,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He said another big point is that while it’s not necessarily so hard to simply set up a summit, going from no contact at all to the contacts at the highest level in such a short span of time — the summit is to take place before May — can make it hard to gauge what accomplishments are realistic and what isn’t.
“Trump will want North Korea to commit to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation right then and there,” Narang said. “It won’t. The North will want the US to commit to ending the hostile policy in totality. It won’t..”
Suzanne DiMaggio, who helped facilitate the first official discussions between the Trump administration and North Korean government representatives in Oslo last year, said she is concerned the apparent lack of lower-level groundwork that usually paves the way for summits could cause big problems.
“Engaging an adversary with whom we’ve had scant communications over many years presents especially difficult challenges,” she warned.
Even without major, gamechanging breakthroughs, simply establishing a viable channel of communication and a baseline relationship could make it easier to defuse future tensions. Taking things slowly isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But if Trump goes into the summit looking for a huge, game-changing breakthrough and comes up embarrassingly short, he could find himself with few options for a next step.
“If Trump goes at all, and expects to announce a denuclearised North Korea, he will leave disappointed and maybe angry enough to believe that talks are useless and only military options are left,” Narang warned.
Without a lot more clarity going into the summit, he added, it could fall through in the worst way.