President Trump has accepted North Korea’s invitation for direct talks with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, to be held by May. Seven things to consider:
- Short-term, it reduces the risk of war.
- Mismatched signals may have set up the talks to fail. – Usually, before high-level talks like these, both sides spend a long time telegraphing their expected outcomes. That is not really how things have proceeded with the United States and North Korea. Mr. Trump has already committed to granting North Korea one of its most desired concessions: a high-level meeting between the heads of state. Further, Mr. Trump has declared “denuclearization” as his minimal acceptable outcome for talks, making it harder for him to accept a more modest (but more achievable!) outcome and costlier for him to walk away. The North Koreans can walk away more freely, while the Americans will be more desperate to come home with some sort of win. It’s a formulation that puts the Americans at significant disadvantage before talks even begin.
- The sides do not agree on the point of talking. – Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based analyst, writes in a column in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that “denuclearization” means vastly different things to the United States and North Korea. Americans understand the word as describing North Korea’s full nuclear disarmament, which is very difficult to imagine happening. But North Koreans, she writes, tend to mean it as a kind of mutual and incremental disarmament in which the United States also gives up weapons.
- The Trump administration has gotten the process backward. – It’s practically an axiom of international diplomacy that you only bring heads of state together at the very end of talks, after lower-level officials have done the dirty work. Victor Cha, a well-respected North Korea expert, warns in a New York Times Op-Ed essay, “Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy.”
- The State Department is in a shambles, with no American ambassador to South Korea, or undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
- Everything could turn on President Trump’s personality. Talks and their outcome will be determined, to an unprecedented degree, by Mr. Trump’s personal biases and impulses. By his mood at the time of talks. By his particular style of negotiation.
- North Korea has already achieved a symbolic victory. – For North Korea, high-level talks are a big win in their own right. Kim Jong-un seeks to transform his country from a rogue pariah into an established nuclear power, a peer to the United States, a player on the international stage. This wins Mr. Kim international acknowledgment and heightened status, as well as significant domestic credibility.
[Read full New York Times opinion]