Even if a summit gives North Korea legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, talking is preferable to the disastrous alternative.
On Thursday, Chung Eui Yong, South Korea’s national security advisor, told a stunned group of journalists at the White House that President Donald Trump had accepted an invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. Like so many other decisions in this White House, this one felt chaotic. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, seemed to learn of the decision to hold the meeting, which is planned to occur by May, only after it was made. (He and other administration officials have since downplayed its significance, though Trump on Friday night tweeted: “The deal with North Korea is very much in the making.”) And yet: While one may wish that Trump acted less impulsively, a Trump-Kim summit is a good idea, one that may solve the problem of a truculent North Korea.
To understand why, it’s important to manage one’s expectations. At a great cost to its citizens, its economy, and its international reputation, North Korea has become a nuclear state. Military action against the Kim regime, or even a “bloody nose” strike targeting a North Korean nuclear facility, could incite war—the main reason the United States hasn’t followed the example of Israel, which bombed a Syrian nuclear installation in 2007. Accepting the reality of a nuclear North Korea is more reasonable than believing there’s a way to force Kim to denuclearize without sparking a devastating war.
It’s also worth remembering that when it comes to North Korea, nukes are hardly the only danger. Even if Pyongyang relinquished its entire nuclear arsenal, it would still possess a large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, and could decimate Seoul, South Korea’s capital, with its conventional weaponry. The real problem is not North Korea’s nuclear arms, but its potential willingness to use them, along with the rest of its weapons, in a way that harms U.S. interests.
A Trump-Kim summit, then, is probably the least bad way to reduce Pyongyang’s desire to harm the United States. By legitimizing Kim through a meeting, Trump could convince him that the United States does not pose an existential threat to his regime. (Washington has a long and rich history of legitimizing awful dictators, from Josef Stalin to Mobutu Sese Seko, when it’s in America’s national interests.) A summit would increase trust between the two nations: Americans could temper their view of North Korea as a nation of brainwashed automatons run by a cartoonishly cruel dictator, and North Koreans could see that Americans don’t crave their destruction.
Perhaps most importantly, a summit would buy time. Pyongyang may or may not follow through on its plans to continue building its weapons stockpiles. But even if it perfects its ability to launch a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile at the United States, it would almost certainly never commit the suicidal act of actually doing so. “As the latest head of a family that has ruled for three generations,” journalist Mark Bowden wrote, “one whose primary purpose has been to survive, as a young man with a lifetime of wealth and power before him, how likely is he to wake up one morning and set fire to his world?”
North Korea is a relatively weak nation. Despite some parallels between the announced Trump-Kim meeting and Nixon’s trip to China, North Korea is far less significant than the Middle Kingdom. “You put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system,” Nixon said in 1971, a year before his historic trip, “and they will be the leaders of the world.” North Korea, by contrast, is a desperately poor nation of 25 million people, bordered to the north by China and Russia, two countries with unquestionably more powerful militaries, and to the south by South Korea, a military power backed by the world’s predominant military power.
The more important issue, however, is not North Korea’s relative strength or weakness, but its willingness to use its strengths in ways that harm the United States. During the Cold War, North Korea—perhaps emboldened by the Soviet Union—would readily provoke the United States, even though its military was much weaker then. In January 1968, North Korean forces captured the USS Pueblo, detaining and torturing its crew; in April 1969, they shot down a U.S. spy plane, killing all 31 crew members. Like every other dictatorship in the world, North Korea could act more aggressively towards the United States today if it chose to. Its national interests, and fear of an American reprisal, prevent it from doing so.
The reasonable best-case scenario for North Korea is that the Kim regime focuses almost exclusively on staying in power and delivering economic growth to its citizens rather than threatening the United States or its neighbors. (Think something like Vietnam after its 1980s economic liberalization—but with nuclear weapons.) Actually pushing for regime change is risky. A coup could replace Kim with a benevolent dictator who prepares the country for elections and reunification with the South under Seoul—or with a general who decides that launching nuclear weapons at the United States, or selling them to a group like the Islamic State, serves Pyongyang’s interests.
After Kim, it’s hard to imagine the United States or even China having much influence on state-building in one of the world’s most xenophobic nations. It’s better to stay mostly on the sidelines, and wait for the regime to collapse under the weight of its own misrule.
In June 2016, when a Trump presidency seemed about as likely as a Trump-Kim summit once did, the president spoke about his willingness to speak with Kim. “Who the hell cares? I’ll speak to anybody,” Trump said, adding: “There’s a 10 percent or a 20 percent chance that I can talk ‘em out of those damn nukes.” While South Korea’s Chung said the meeting between the two leaders would “achieve permanent denuclearization,” Trump’s estimation of his chances of convincing Kim to relinquish his nukes feels accurate. Kim will likely keep his nuclear weapons, mindful of their value as an insurance policy—and aware of the fate that met the non-nuclear dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi.
Ahead of the proposed Trump-Kim summit, there are some key questions to keep in mind: What really matters here? That Trump cows Kim, cudgeling him and his nation with the threat of American might? That the United States risks war, the decimation of Seoul, a nuclear missile screaming towards Hawaii, and the deaths of millions of North Koreans, just so it doesn’t have to admit that Pyongyang outmaneuvered the Trump administration? Or, instead, that egos are set aside in the pursuit of peace?
If this meeting actually occurs as planned, a weak and isolated state may unfairly and dishonestly get the recognition it craves from the world’s most powerful nation. This happens from time to time—it’s time to accept it.