It has been the goal of North Korea for decades now to have a high-profile, one-on-one summit meeting with the President of the United States. Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il, wanted such a meeting with President Clinton. The Clinton administration agreed to send Madeleine Albright to North Korea to begin talks and see if enough progress was made to warrant a presidential summit. It concluded that there wasn't.
The Bush administration, which labeled North Korea part of the Axis of Evil, was much cooler on high-level talks. The Obama administration achieved breakthroughs with the Cuban and Iranian regimes through high-level contacts, but gave up on diplomacy with the North Korean regime because of its unwillingness to denuclearize. It adopted a policy of pressure instead of engagement, and until now, the Trump administration had stuck to that policy and escalated it.
Earlier this week, Vice President Mike Pence said
, "our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable and concrete steps toward denuclearization." Trump himself previously ridiculed the idea of talks, tweeting
, "The U.S. has been talking to North Korea ... for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!" He humiliated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for his diplomatic efforts, tweeting
that he was "wasting his time."
So what changed this week? It's not clear. The charitable interpretation would be that the South Korean government received assurances that the North was serious about talks to eliminate its arsenal. Let's be clear that North Korea has announced no concessions, no reversal of its arsenal, no denuclearization.
What appears to have happened is the following: Trump was told that in the talks between North and South, Kim Jong Un expressed a wish to meet with him, and Trump jumped at the opportunity. Henry Kissinger has often said that presidential summits should be the climax of a long negotiating process, not the beginning. Trump's gambit turns that dictum on its head. Victor Cha, once slated to be Trump's ambassador to South Korea, warns
that a presidential summit is dangerous because if it fails, it leaves little room for further diplomacy. The outcome, he says, could actually end up being war.
But we should look on this move with hope and wish the President and the administration well. Yet it does feel like it is part of a pattern.
Trump talks tough toward countries like China and Saudi Arabia. They then flatter him, put on parades and banquets, and he quickly reverses course. And in his eagerness to reward flattery he makes large concessions and gets little in return. The United States has endorsed Saudi policy in Yemen and Qatar, with no noticeable reciprocal reward. Trump announced a major concession to Israel, the move to Jerusalem
, without even asking for something in return.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in seems to have noticed. He has sought to move events on the Korean Peninsula away from war talk and towards negotiations, essentially the opposite of Trump's declared path. But he took pains to always praise Trump while he charted his contrary course. He did it again this week, giving Trump ample credit for the opening.
All these countries seem to understand how to play Donald Trump. What we need to watch now is whether Donald Trump knows how to play them.