Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby, a retired rear admiral in the US Navy, was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
President Trump’s agreement to meet with Kim Jong Un is a moment for all Americans. We should embrace it as such.
Love him or hate him, we should all want President Trump to succeed. The potential risks of his failure to negotiate a peaceful denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula – and the specter of the war which might result – must be too great a calamity for any of us to ponder or accept.
Even if no war follows, if the whole diplomatic process breaks down and Kim simply uses it to buy time to further advance his nuclear and ballistic missile capability, we, as a nation, and our allies and friends in the region will have to reconcile to life under an even greater threat to our security.
That should be unacceptable to all of us, no matter who we voted for.
We can argue about whether Trump is savvy enough to sit across the table from Kim, whether he will be adequately prepared, whether he’s really got the talent and diplomatic strategy in place, and whether giving Kim the audience he so clearly craves is too high a price to pay for talks. Those are fair and understandable concerns. And the White House should be pressed on them.
Indeed, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was pressed on precisely those concerns Friday at her daily briefing. She held firm, insisting that the President would not get played by North Korea.
“We’re not going to have this meeting take place until we see concrete actions,” she said. “We have to see concrete and verifiable actions take place.”
It wasn’t clear what concrete actions to which she was referring. One hopes they include the release of the three Americans being detained in Pyongyang. That would certainly go a long way to proving Kim’s sincerity.
In any event, Ms. Sanders struck a more even-handed and pragmatic tone than did our South Korean interlocutors the night before. They fairly glowed about the North’s intention to denuclearize and relayed a promise by Trump to meet Kim by May of this year. She should be commended for her probity.
And whatever our worries might be about Mr. Trump’s impulsiveness and arrogance, we cannot escape the essential truth that the pressure he has applied to North Korea and the uncertainty his bellicosity has engendered on both sides of the demilitarized zone has helped bring about this opportunity.
To be sure, there is more to it than Trump’s “big stick.”
It’s also a reflection of the fact that Kim is not his father. He goes into these talks with a much more highly advanced nuclear and missile program. He’ll be more credible at the table precisely because he’s more capable. He has a better hand to play.
Kim is also dealing with a more pliable head of state in Seoul. South Korean President Moon Jae-in ran and won his office on the promise of a more robust engagement strategy, of a more liberal view of peninsular reunification. But Moon’s popularity has been slipping of late. Many Koreans want peace, but not at any cost. So, Kim would be foolish not to take advantage of Moon’s occupancy of the Blue House while he can.
We ought also to consider – and be honest with ourselves about – the degree to which the United States has been led to this moment by South Korean allies who are just as worried about Kim Jong Un as they are by Donald Trump.
And we should be honest with ourselves about the prospect for success. History offers little by way of encouragement. North Korean leaders have promised before to freeze their testing. They have promised before to consider denuclearization. They have promised before to enter meaningfully into negotiations. And each time they have broken those promises.
Skepticism is surely warranted. A summit between heads of state might simply prove too far a leap to take. But even in the planning process for that meeting, there will be lower-level discussions that may open up channels of dialogue that have long since fallen mute. That alone is progress of a sort.
The administration is now working feverishly to develop its strategy, to form its team and to identify the specific outcomes they will seek. Recent gaps and resignations at the State Department do nothing to make that task easier. But it’s clear they understand the opportunity before them and that they are taking seriously the benefits this opportunity might afford future generations.
All of us should be looking for ways to spur those efforts, or at the very least not stymie them.
That’s not to suggest the White House should be above criticism. Far from it. A fair debate about process and risks is more than appropriate. But if ever there was a time – regardless of partisanship or personal animosity – for citizens, academics and former officials with expertise and regional experience to volunteer their services, to share their wisdom, to lend an ear and maybe even a shoulder to the difficult work of the next few months … this is it.
This is a moment for all Americans. Trump’s big stick has become something of an olive branch. We should not fail to help him grasp it.