The headline says Trump to meet with Kim Jong-un. “Well now,” you say, “He’s going to do what you wanted all along! Aren’t you happy?” In a word, no, not at all. But I can see there may be some explaining to do.
A persistent theme of these random essays has been that we were going in the wrong direction with Kim Jong-un and the problems in North Korea. That we needed to reverse course on many of our hard-edged policies if we were to pursue a diplomatic solution. So, you think, Trump agrees with this, huh? Not exactly.
Up to know, our great fear has been that Trump’s bumbling about with his tweets and sophomoric threats was going to accidentally propel us into the middle of a thermonuclear war. All of us, except maybe some pack of iconoclastic war hawks, overwhelmingly and universally want Trump to pack his tweets away and STFU. We see a diplomatic solution as the only acceptable resolution.
But there is a protocol to these things that has to be observed. Our policy goes back more than 70 years when we agreed to the division of the Korean peninsula into two countries but then never formally recognized the second government. Our stated policy has been for reunification of the peninsula and elimination of the second government, which has been a consistent thorn in the side of all three Kim’s. For over 60 years, there has been no peace on the peninsula, only a military truce. We have steadfastly resisted any efforts to elevate the generals’ deal into a formal peace treaty that could be ratified between nations, and we have kept a U.S. military force on the 38th parallel – another thorn in Kim’s side. For over 20 years, ever since North Korea pulled out of the international non-proliferation pact, the United States has refused to participate in any bilateral talks on nuclear arms. This has been perceived to be a personal affront to the leadership of the Kim Dynasty. We would only condone multi-lateral talks involving all the stakeholders, and then only upon the precondition that North Korea give up its nuclear arms before commencement of any talks. Wrapping the subject of diplomacy in this much red tape has had the expected result – nothing productive has happened in over 70 years.
The intricate web of international relations with our allies means the ship of state cannot be turned on a dime. It takes a ton of international preparation, not just with North Korea but with all our allies, if we are going to zoom off in a new direction. We are ill prepared to handle this task on any hurry-up basis. We don’t have an ambassador in South Korea, nor an envoy or emissary in North Korea. There is no formal chain of communication between the U.S. and North Korea. The State department senior expert on North Korean affairs just resigned. His department has been decimated, and there is no adequate staff at State or in the Whitehouse to prepare the President for any top-level meeting of leaders. There is no agenda, nor any protocol for the creation of one. The subject is said to be “denuclearization,” but nobody knows exactly what this is, or if there is an agreement between the parties on what the term means. Even for a low-level conference between nations, these haphazard conditions would be a recipe for disappointment; at the highest level, it could be disastrous.
Also, as a matter of fundamental negotiating strategy, one seldom starts out by standing on the objective where one wants to end up. The start should be with some defined and expected matters where there is already a leaning toward general agreement, so the process can work around and up to the problem areas.
Finally, in international deal-making, any meeting of leaders does not occur first, it happens last – after others have worked over the problems and smoothed the way. To start with the leaders, with no preparation and with no effort to get all the preliminary agreements in order, there is a significant risk that if the whole thing doesn’t collapse in heap, it will end up being a hugely lopsided disaster for somebody.
It is into this midst of this hoopla that Trump suddenly stepped in and announced a U-turn on decades of iron-fisted U.S. policy. Without preamble, he has agreed to a direct, one-on-one sit down with Kim Jong-un. Over the uproar from both right and left, he has doubled down, cut the legs out from under everybody who has tried to soften or walk back any of his resolve, and announced that it is going to happen in May.
In international diplomatic time scale, that is the day after tomorrow. The old fool and rocket man. All by themselves. Across a kitchen table somewhere. No script and no menu. And we haven’t even lettered the place cards or thawed out the turkey.
What could possibly go wrong?