Trump Is Smart to Talk to Kim Jong Un
Most high-stakes diplomatic summits take place after weeks, if not months of careful preparation and choreography, with every last detail planned to eliminate surprises. Given the two personalities involved—President Trump and Kim Jong Un—and the lack of planning so far, at least on the American side, many national security experts fear Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator might prove to be a serious mistake—that is, if it even happens. A failed meeting would badly damage the prospects for future diplomacy to curtail North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, possibly in an irreversible way, and could make unviable military options suddenly appear unavoidable.
We’ve been participating in informal talks with North Korean officials over the past few years, and we see the matter differently: The regime in Pyongyang has its own agenda, to avoid a conflict and to modernize its economy. That’s why we think President Trump was wise to welcome Kim’s overture, even if it might not lead anywhere. Unfortunately, critics of the president’s move seem to have forgotten the constant drumbeat in the media about military options — the latest about a U.S. plan to inflict a “bloody nose” on Pyongyang — after months of tense escalation and dangerous rhetoric. If the summit comes to fruition, it could result in a historic breakthrough or set us on a path that could lead to a peaceful resolution of the current confrontation. For any chance of success, the United States must quickly carry out a great deal of preparatory work, particularly if the date floated — sometime in May — becomes set in stone.
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An immediate priority must focus on bringing coherence to the administration’s North Korea policy. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ description of U.S. policy as “diplomacy-led” but “backed up with military options available to ensure that our diplomats are understood to be speaking from a position of strength” is a good starting point.
Forging a robust diplomatic strategy will require good process—well-coordinated participation across the relevant government agencies, from the State Department to the Pentagon to the intelligence community to the White House and National Security Council. This won’t be easy, given the constant turmoil inside this administration. According to press reports, president Trump accepted the offer for a summit without consulting his top national security advisers.
However, the Trump team will not be starting from scratch. Deep in the bowels of the National Security Council and the State Department, there are file cabinets filled with options papers laying out possibilities for conducting diplomacy with North Koreans compiled by previous administrations that provide different roadmaps to denuclearize the North.
A more intractable challenge is the reality that there is virtually no one in the administration with experience dealing with North Koreans since the State Department’s top Korea hand, Joseph Yun, just stepped down. The resulting vaccum puts the United States at a serious disadvantage, since North Korea’s negotiators will have decades of experience working with Americans. Single encounters with North Koreans at a diplomatic event or some academic seminar hardly counts. At the very least, the White House should reach out to experts outside of government who have sustained and extensive experience to learn about what it’s like to negotiate with North Koreans.
Trump now needs to scramble his administration to get prepared for what could be the most important diplomatic encounter of his presidency. A key goal of the preparations should be to set the groundwork for sustained, productive talks while testing the North Koreans’ seriousness. Pyongyang has made the first move in this chess match — Kim has set the agenda and the pace while the Trump administration is in reactive mode. Luckily, that agenda appears to coincide with the Trump administration’s conditions for holding talks.
That is no surprise to either of us, since in our recent informal discussions with North Korean government officials the North Koreans have conveyed a clear interest in starting a dialogue with the new administration, even including the possibility of a summit. Knowing how they operate, the North Koreans probably have planned their strategy meticulously and looked out over months with “Options A, B, C and D” on how to proceed towards their objectives.
The administration needs to catch up—fast. Aside from doing its own homework, Washington should quickly reach out to Pyongyang and begin the process of summit preparation. A smart first step would be a face-to-face meeting — ideally between Secretary Tillerson and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho — as soon as possible. Any process leading to a summit, while involving talks between lower-level diplomats, will require shepherding by these two senior officials to ensure success. While Tillerson visited Northeast Asia on his first trip abroad, his main experience at ExxonMobil was in places like Russia, Venezuela and the Middle East. He would face a steep learning curve in preparing for such a meeting. Foreign Minister Ri, who one of the authors has known for 25 years, is a seasoned diplomat and Pyongyang’s lead expert on the United States and the issues separating our two countries.
A meeting between these two men would have a number of objectives. First, it would be an important opportunity to convey to the North Koreans on behalf of President Trump that regime change is not U.S. policy and explain the policy of maximum pressure while emphasizing engagement as the preferred way forward.
Second, a Tillerson-Ri meeting should confirm the message brought to President Trump by the South Korean envoys who met Kim Jong Un, namely that North Korea will continue a nuclear and missile testing moratorium while talks are underway. (North Korea hasn’t launched a missile since November 28, a fact that president Trump noted in a recent tweet.)
Third, the foreign ministers should establish a process of reliable direct communication, preferably face-to-face talks between diplomats that will be essential to prepare for a summit.
Fourth, Secretary Tillerson should call for the release of the three Americans still detained in North Korea as a humanitarian gesture.
The final and perhaps most important issue on the agenda would be to codify North Korea’s stance on denuclearization. Calls by some experts to drop this objective because it’s impractical make no sense, particularly since it appears the North Koreans are willing to talk about it. Of course, we must be pragmatic given the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and understand this will have to be a long-term objective of any negotiations. (It is worth noting that a North Korean nuclear and missile test moratorium is a first step in that direction.) Secretary Tillerson should underscore that denuclearization remains a key U.S. goal, and indeed, should secure North Korean agreement that it shares that objective.