by Chronicle Editorial Board · March 9, 2018
Photo: KOREAN CENTRAL NEWS AGENCY, NYT
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting what was said to be a missile-ready hydrogen bomb at an undisclosed location in September.
From imposing fathers to fierce devotion to unorthodox hairdos, President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un may well have some basis for understanding each other on a personal level. And for all the potential pitfalls of Trump’s agreement to meet Kim coif-to-coif within the next few months, it’s vastly preferable to his previous strategy of dumb insults (“Rocket Man”) and dumber threats (“fire and fury like the world has never seen”).
When Trump took to Twitter in August to declare that “Talking is not the answer!” to the North Korea problem, he was exactly wrong. Given the dictatorship’s vast arsenal on the doorstep of U.S. ally South Korea and its capacity to project a nuclear strike much further, diplomacy is the only answer.
Now that Trump has decided to pursue talks, he is, to that extent, right.
Whether he is fit or ready to extract progress from negotiations is a more challenging question.
His mercurial approach to the matter doesn’t instill confidence. Trump went from considering a “bloody nose” first strike and publicly disparaging his own chief diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” to rather quickly promising the first ever audience with a U.S. president for a North Korean leader.
Was this all a game of four-dimensional chess through which Trump bluffed Kim into negotiations? Perhaps Trump’s take on Nixon’s madman theory, along with “maximum pressure” sanctions and a thaw in inter-Korean relations, helped bring about Kim’s offer to meet him. However, Kim and his forebears have long sought such a tête-à-tête to suggest equal footing with their superpower nemesis. Unless Trump suddenly changes course again — which is always a distinct possibility — he has effectively made a historic concession to the pariah regime, with nothing to show for it beyond its relatively inconsequential offer to suspend nuclear missile tests.
Moreover, Trump has already demonstrated his vulnerability to the blandishments of autocrats and his reluctance to challenge or wrest concessions from them. Perhaps wiser men and women could prepare him for this high-stakes summit, but Trump has gutted the State Department, which recently lost its chief North Korea expert, and failed to appoint an ambassador to South Korea. Nor has the president been particularly receptive to preparation in any case.
All of that is in marked contrast to the North Koreans, for whom the United States has been a singular obsession for generations. And while the regime has said it wants to discuss denuclearization, it has long seen nuclear weapons as crucial to its survival. That is, it’s likely “gonna be a long, long time,” to quote the president’s favorite Elton John number, before the regime gives them up.
With those considerable caveats, Trump’s willingness to engage in high-level diplomacy is a welcome reversal. Though the president would never admit it, his predecessor’s much more studied engagement with a widely despised regime, Iran’s, helped defuse another nuclear threat. Anything approaching that kind of progress on North Korea will be difficult, but without diplomacy, it would be impossible.
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San Francisco Chronicle · by Chronicle Editorial Board · March 9, 2018