Both President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have landed in Singapore for their historic meeting Tuesday, and rarely has a summit been as unscripted as this one.
“I have a clear objective, but I have to say—it’s going to be something that will always be spur of the moment,” Donald Trump said Saturday, talking about the possibility of reaching an agreement with North Korea to turn over nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles and dismantle weapons infrastructure.
The president has given little indication he thinks he will convince Kim, when they meet, to make a credible commitment to “denuclearize.”
Trump’s various statements in the last several days suggest, as critics say, the event will end up merely as a meet-and-greet. Saturday, the president said he is hoping to establish a “relationship,” a sure sign that nothing substantive will be achieved. Earlier, he had talked about needing more than three summits to disarm the militant Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The Tuesday summit, despite everything, could be a history-making success for the U.S. In addition to disarming Kim, Trump is apparently thinking of getting the young dictator to ditch his longtime Chinese sponsors. A realignment in North Asia could be Trump’s opening shot in a multi-decade struggle with Beijing. Call it this century’s version of the Cold War.
From the very beginning, Kim, from all appearances, has meticulously gamed-out events, and Trump, clearly, has reacted on instinct. For instance, the president on March 8 accepted on the spot Kim’s invitation to meet. Before his acceptance, there were no studies, no interagency reviews, no consultations with friends or allies. Trump, after about 45 minutes of thinking about the matter, said yes to the two emissaries sent by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who conveyed Pyongyang’s groundbreaking offer.
Since then, Trump has obviously said whatever has popped into his head about the momentous event, the first time a sitting American president will meet a North Korean leader. Trump places more value in gut feelings than preparation.
“I’m very well-prepared,” Trump said Thursday from the Oval Office. “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done.”
On the topic of getting things done, Trump has the power to convince Kim that it is in his interest to give up nukes and missiles, but the American president has been reluctant in recent weeks to use leverage. In place of maintaining “maximum pressure,” Trump has eased off. For instance, The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of last month that Trump’s Treasury Department did not, as planned, sanction almost three dozen entities for North Korea dealings.
Trump himself has shied away from leaning on Kim. “I don’t even want to use the term ‘maximum pressure’ anymore because I don’t want to use that term because we’re getting along,” he said on the first of the month after meeting Kim Yong Chol, Kim Jong Un’s envoy.
Trump’s change in tone was so noticeable then—and so friendly to the North—that CNN in a headline asked what some now wonder: “Is Trump Giving North Korea a Pass on Nukes?”
Of course, Trump and American officials say they are committed to denuclearization, and on Saturday in Quebec, at the G-7 press conference, the president declared Kim had only a “one-time shot” to make it happen.
Nonetheless, if Trump were as determined as he said he was, he would not go to Singapore until the North Koreans committed to issuing a firm pledge to disarm. Once Kim and Trump shake hands for the cameras, the North Korean supremo gets much of what he wants from the meeting: legitimization.
Legitimization, in turn, solidifies Kim’s shaky-looking grip on power. And once in firmer control, he will be in a better position to resist Trump’s disarmament demands.
Trump, who fancies himself a masterful negotiator, surely knows all that. On the assumption he does not view his self-described “mission of peace” as “just a political stunt”—the phrase of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders—Trump must have a bigger goal in mind.
The president hinted at his bigger goal when he said on the first of the month that “the relationships are building, and that’s a very positive thing.”
Relationships are not especially important if you’re using raw power to disarm a foe, what the administration was trying to do until a few weeks ago. Relationships are critical, however, if you are trying to woo away your adversary’s only formal military ally. North Korea is China’s sole alliance partner.
If Trump believes he can entice Kim from China’s embrace, his policies of the last week make sense. Why else would Trump float the idea of inviting Kim to the U.S. when the North Korean was showing few signs of giving up his arsenal?
A puny nuked-up North Korea will never be as dangerous to the United States as a belligerent China. By prying away Pyongyang from Beijing, the Chinese would suffer a blow to pride and prestige, seriously undermining their cherished narratives that they are history’s next great power and that the U.S. is in terminal decline.
The blow is worse if the Kim regime is, thanks to Donald Trump, still in possession of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, putting all of China in range of an unfriendly neighbor.
The Chinese and Koreans have been unfriendly neighbors for millennia. The Koreans still remember China’s invasion of the fifth century and are angry about paying tribute to Chinese emperors throughout much of their history.
In contrast, the hostility between North Korea and the U.S. is just seven decades old. America has no territorial ambitions on the peninsula, while the Chinese make it appear they have designs of taking even more Korean territory, claiming that what is now North Korea was once China’s domain.
“It may seem ludicrous to outsiders, but several close observers of North Korea told the FT that, given the choice, Mr. Kim would prefer an alliance with America, the far-off superpower, than China, the ancient oppressor and emerging superpower,” wrote Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times two years ago.
Is friendship with North Korea Trump’s grand plan? Many might think the “dotard”—Kim’s famous phrase for Trump—could not possibly come up with such a far-reaching scheme on his own, and perhaps he did not.
Yet separating China from its only alliance partner is consistent with Trump’s recent words, and in any event it could be sound policy. Nixon got great credit for wooing China from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, so perhaps Trump is replaying that strategy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at his May 31 press availability said it would be “tragic to let this opportunity go to waste.” Perhaps making North Korea a friend is what he and his boss had in mind.
After all, Kim does not look like he is now willing to surrender his weapons—or that Trump is trying very hard to convince him to do that.