The risk of Trump’s talks with North Korea

Excerpts of an Opinion piece by Jake Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served in the Obama administration as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden:

What will happen if President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet? Many experts believe that a rushed and ill-prepared summit is likely to fail, prematurely discrediting diplomacy and putting us on a path to war.

Another scenario is just as plausible: Trump and Kim move quickly to strike a barest-of-bones “grand bargain” that commits Washington to address North Korea’s concerns in return for Pyongyang’s promise to pursue denuclearization, with the details to be worked out later. An all-sizzle-and-no-steak deal of this kind would be classic Trump, giving him the optics of a diplomatic “win” while doing little to reduce the threat posed by Kim’s nuclear program. This could prove a trap for the United States, but Trump may well fall into it.

First, in any high-stakes summit, the laws of diplomatic physics create momentum that drives leaders to reach a “declaration” or “accord,” even if it means defining down success. And Trump has always shown that he’s keen to trumpet “wins” even when the substance doesn’t bear out the claims. For him, it’s the choreography and drama that matter; he can leave the real substance for later, and for others.

Then consider the zone of possible agreement. Like his father and grandfather, Kim has apparently signaled that he is open to mouthing the word “denuclearization,” at least as a bargaining maneuver to alleviate sanctions pressure.

There is a real risk that this kind of outcome would work much more to Pyongyang’s advantage than Washington’s. Our partners would take their foot off the sanctions gas. South Korea would naturally accelerate its engagement with the North, including its economic ties. China, fearing that U.S.-North Korean engagement would weaken its hand, would scramble (even more than it already has) to offer incentives to increase Beijing’s influence with Kim.

North Korea would be implementing a new version of its old playbook: Make a series of promises in exchange for economic breathing room — and break them later. This could easily raise the risk of war in the medium term.

[The Washington Post]

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