Talk about a made-for-TV moment.
The surprise announcement made Thursday night at the White House that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had invited President Donald Trump for a sit-down meeting – and that Trump had accepted – sets the stage for a historic gathering between two leaders who appeared to be at a nuclear-warheads draw not six months ago. (No sitting US president has ever met with a sitting North Korean leader.)
This is the same Kim who had famously/infamously described Trump as a “dotard,” continued a series of missile tests despite repeated warnings from the United States and threatened that he could strike at the heart of America if he so chose.
And the same Trump who called Kim “Little Rocket Man,” warned of “fire and fury” if the North Koreans continued their missile tests and insisted his nuclear button was far larger than Kim’s.
Then there are the larger-than-life personalities involved.
Kim, the rogue dictator leading one of the most separate societies in the world even while touting absurd claims like that he learned to drive at the age of 3. (His father, Kim Jong Il, claimed to have once made 11 holes-in-one in a single round of golf – the first he ever played!)
And Trump, the billionaire populist who won the most unexpected victory in American presidential political history thanks to a campaign that was built on fear, anxiety and a healthy dollop of exaggeration/untruth.
Given that backdrop, the meeting, about which few details were available other than that it will happen before May, feels – at least at first blush – less like a diplomatic gathering between two world leaders than a much-anticipated pay-per-view professional wrestling match between two longtime rivals. Or a showdown between two beloved (or be-hated – not a word but you get my meaning) reality show contestants.
You can even imagine the promoter’s voice saying something like: “The world thought they would never meet. They have called each other every name in the book. But now, for one day only, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will stare each other down across a table!”
For all of the reality TV (or pro wrestling) aspects of this meeting, the stakes are far more real than winning “The Amazing Race” or being crowned the WWE heavyweight champion.
After all: We are talking about nuclear weapons here – the most deadly force known to man. If this much ballyhooed summit goes off the rails – whether before it happens, during the actual meeting or in its aftermath – the consequences are very real and very scary.
What makes this all even more fraught is the fact that no one really knows why Kim, after years of bellicose talk directed at the United States, has changed his tune so abruptly.
Trump allies claim the President’s tough talk – and hardened sanctions against North Korea – have brought Kim to the table. Kim was never truly afraid that President Barack Obama might take military action against the North Korean regime, while he is far less certain that Trump has those same reservations.
(Trump himself was in credit-taking mode in the hours leading up to the announcement of the meeting. “Hopefully, you will give me credit,” he told ABC’s Jon Karl of the news.)
Skeptics suggest that Kim may be using Trump to create a scenario by which the US and North Korea are cast to the eyes of the world as equals. And that Kim may believe that he can outfox Trump in a face-to-face meeting, cutting a deal that greatly advantages North Korea.
“The worst possible thing you can do is meet with President Trump in person and try to play him,” warned erstwhile Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). “If you do that, it will be the end of you – and your regime.”
Regardless of the motivations of each of the leaders, the opportunity is real. As is the peril.
These are two men who have spent a lifetime creating their own realities – whether that’s driving as a toddler or having the single most successful first year of any President ever – that often don’t comport with established facts.
They are also trained performers, focused as much – if not more – on perception rather than reality.
When they sit down together, can they put aside the posturing and the gamesmanship and get something real done? Or will this moment – like so many with Kim and Trump individually – devolve into just another episode of reality TV, with each man trying to one-up the other in a game of whose nuclear button is bigger?
The answer to that question is critical for the future not just of the United States but of the world.
This story has been updated.