US President Donald Trump’s decision to accept an offer to meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has elicited deep scepticism from many foreign policy experts and former high-ranking American officials. But while plenty of attention has been paid to the perils of Trump’s decision, little has been said about the risks he would have faced had he declined Pyongyang’s offer, or responded with preconditions.
Maybe the truth is that North Korea made Trump an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The improbable proposal
The stage for Pyongyang’s surprise overture was set over the course of two years. As early as June 2016, Trump, then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, expressed his willingness to meet and negotiate with North Korea’s leader, possibly over a hamburger.
What at the time may have been dismissed as empty campaign rhetoric turned out to reflect Trump’s genuine belief that top-level dialogue with North Korea could produce results, whereas Washington’s standard practice of hammering out agreements before acceding to such an historic summit had not.
Shortly after taking office, Trump reiterated his openness to meeting Kim, with one qualification. In May 2017, the new American president told Bloomberg he would meet North Korea’s dictator “under the right circumstances.” When asked during a daily press briefing to explain what Trump meant by this, then White House spokesman Sean Spicer struggled to come up with specifics.
Only when asked directly if Pyongyang would need to first give up its nuclear weapons before Trump would meet the North Korean leader did Spicer say that he thought that was one of the preconditions.
While Trump conditioned his possible meeting with Kim on an ambiguous set of circumstances, his administration’s requirements for high-level US–North Korean dialogue remained relatively clear, except for a few instances of mixed messaging.
The right agenda
In April 2017, then US secretary of state Rex Tillerson set out the new administration’s position on talks with the North during an interview with National Public Radio. According to Tillerson, dialogue with the Kim regime was possible provided Pyongyang was willing to discuss “the right agenda”, which, as he later clarified, meant focusing on the permanent denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Despite Pyongyang’s and Beijing’s calls to lift its preconditions, Washington remained resolute until the Kim regime finally conceded in March. Following a February meeting with South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in in Seoul, US Vice President Mike Pence made clear that the Kim regime did not need to take concrete steps towards denuclearisation before talks could occur, but said that discussions on denuclearisation needed to happen at the outset of any talks with the North.
Later that month, high-ranking North Korean officials told Seoul that the Kim regime was finally interested in talking with the US. The Trump administration, however, did not commit to dialogue since Pyongyang had not pledged to put its nukes on the table.
Washington’s cool response led North Korea’s Foreign Ministry to vow that Pyongyang would never give in to the Trump administration’s preconditions or “beg” for talks. The North even threatened to “counter” US–South Korea joint military exercises, scheduled to start in April, if the US kept its sanctions in place.
But only two days later, Kim Jong-un made a major reversal, telling South Korean interlocutors he was willing to discuss denuclearisation, would tolerate the upcoming US–South Korean drills, and refrain from further nuclear and missile tests so long as talks continued.
Soon after receiving this news and learning that Kim desired a face-to-face meeting with him, Trump stunned the world by readily accepting the improbable proposal.
Risks and rewards
Respected national security experts, including Jeffrey Bader, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser on Asia during his first years in office, and Michael Green, former special adviser to George W. Bush for national security affairs, have highlighted the significant risks Trump runs by anointing himself “negotiator-in-chief” and accepting Kim’s offer without pause for deliberation.
Yet Trump would also have faced serious risks had he not acceded to the North Korean leader’s request.
First, had Trump acted differently, he might have ruined any chance of establishing a basic level of trust with Pyongyang, which is essential if there is to be a negotiated settlement on the North Korean nuclear issue during his presidency. Since Trump suggested on multiple occasions he was willing to meet Kim under the “right circumstances”, but never defined what these were, Pyongyang, quite reasonably, might have expected such a reward for backing off so dramatically from its hard line.
In order to help Kim save face and preserve the possibility of a negotiated settlement, it might have been necessary for Trump to promptly accept the meeting and work out the details later, which allowed the US to demonstrate good faith while leaving the option of backing out of the meeting open, should Pyongyang fail to keep the virtuous circle spinning during preparatory meetings.
By refusing to meet Kim, Trump would also have jeopardised cooperation with South Korea and China on the North Korea issue. Since late last year, Beijing, Seoul, and Washington had been working to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, to create both a peaceful environment for the Pyeongchang Winter Games and a window of opportunity for engagement with Pyongyang.
After the Olympics concluded, and with a return to the old escalatory cycle of missile tests, threats, and military posturing looming with the announcement of new US–ROK military exercises only weeks away, South Korea’s president began pushing Washington publicly to moderate its preconditions to talks with the Kim regime.
Without testing the diplomatic path, and perhaps squandering the last good chance at reaching a negotiated settlement with Pyongyang, it would have been hard for the Trump administration to convince Seoul to sign on to the ominous “phase two” of Washington’s maximum-pressure campaign, especially since Seoul would have risked its improving relations with Beijing by doing so. It would also have been even more difficult to maintain Beijing’s cooperation on sanctioning North Korea.
Most important of all, had Trump rejected Pyongyang’s unprecedented overture, he might have raised the odds, however slightly, of military conflict with North Korea.
Washington and Pyongyang appeared to be on a collision course when Kim made his offer. At the time, US and South Korean defence chiefs were preparing to announce the dates of new joint military exercises within three weeks.
North Korea had met those annual exercises with provocations each year since Kim came to power, starting with a failed satellite launch in April 2012 and culminating in a crescendo of missile tests in 2017. Having already threatened to “counter” this year’s drills, it is hard to imagine how the Kim regime could have afforded not to follow through with its threat had Trump declined Kim’s offer or suddenly sprung previously unstated preconditions on the dictator.
And there is no telling if North Korea would have taken what some national security experts see as the logical next step for the country’s missile program: a horizontal test of its intercontinental ballistic missile. This involves North Korea launching one its most powerful missiles on a relatively normal trajectory, as opposed to lofting it high up into the Earth’s atmosphere as it has done in all of its tests to date, in order to totally convince the US that it possesses a fully operational weapon capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to a target on the US mainland.
With the Trump administration still considering military options for dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat, it is possible, albeit unlikely, that the situation on the Korean Peninsula could have spiralled into a military conflict if Trump’s instinct had been to press Kim for more concessions, rather than to accept his offer.
Least risky option
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the Trump administration’s preparedness for the planned summit with Kim Jong-un. A president with little foreign policy experience pursuing an unorthodox style of diplomacy with a hollowed-out State Department and minimal preparation time is an inherently risky endeavour.
But Trump’s decision to take a chance on diplomacy while maintaining pressure on the Kim regime may have been his least risky option.