In Vietnam, the U.S. and North Korean leaders will once again act as lead negotiators in nuclear talks. “No one really knows what it will mean to ski downhill from the top of Mt. Everest,” wrote one expert.
Heading into his second summit with Kim Jong Un this week, Donald Trump is making a striking argument: With his singular smarts, deal-making prowess, and sizzling personal chemistry with Kim, he is the only one capable of eliminating the North Korean nuclear threat.
But Trump’s approach of “I alone can fix it” (which he initially espoused as a presidential candidate in reference to America’s broken political system) has undercut his diplomats and technocrats by signaling to North Korea that he is the man to make a deal with.
Trump’s negotiators have thus been left in a bind: The only way to make major progress under such circumstances is to get the U.S. and North Korean leaders in a room, but they can’t get them in a room without taking a high-risk gamble.
That’s what Trump’s meeting with Kim in Vietnam, on February 27–28, amounts to. At best, the two leaders will achieve a breakthrough on peace and denuclearization that has eluded their predecessors for decades. At worst, the United States will reward North Korea without reducing the danger it poses. Somewhere in the middle would be a repeat of the leaders’ first summit in Singapore last June: a spectacle with little of substance to show for it.
“Both leaders are free to put aside their briefing books—assuming they even look at them—and move according to their instincts and sense of the possible. Bureaucracies and advisors working with kings, emperors and presidents have known that for centuries,” wrote Stanford’s Robert Carlin, a North Korea scholar who recently held the most detailed discussion yet with Trump’s special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, on the administration’s vision for diplomacy with Kim.