In 2008, I was one of a few dozen foreign journalists who witnessed the destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear cooling tower in North Korea. Yongbyon was where North Korea had been processing plutonium, and leader Kim Jong Il wanted to show the world that he was serious about dismantling the reactor and meeting the U.S. and the other members of the so-called six-party talks halfway. At the time, it was viewed as a symbolic milestone in the history of nuclear negotiations between North Korea and other world powers, but the impression was fleeting; less than a year later, talks collapsed and the Kim dynasty accelerated its pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Ten years later, it has amassed a small arsenal of nuclear bombs and, increasingly, the ability to deliver them with long-range missiles.
It is with this backdrop — a North Korea on the brink of having a credible nuclear deterrent, a fitful history of failed negotiations, and now a shakeup at the very top of the State Department with the appointment of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state — that President Trump plans to meet Kim Jong Un, another survival-oriented and allegedly murderous scion of the Kim clan.
A summit between Trump and the 30-something Kim, apparently brokered by South Korea, shocked everyone in the diplomatic sphere. A sitting U.S. president has never met with a North Korean leader. But reportedly without consultation or deep consideration, Trump said “yes” when a South Korean envoy pitched the idea at the White House, and now the world is aflurry with speculation about how this will all play out.
There is only one obvious precedent for this dramatic personal intervention by a U.S. president in high-stakes diplomacy with an adversary: Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China to meet Mao Zedong, after decades of hostility. But the comparison is misleading, and tells much about how Trump conducts himself on the world stage.
In the world of professional diplomacy, a summit of such historic import is usually the culmination of years of lower-level diplomatic maneuvering. Moreover, Nixon had articulated during his candidacy his view that a better relationship with China would be strategically important vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. When he sent his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to meet secretly with the Chinese a year before he himself met with Mao, it was part of a grand strategy and coherent policy. Numerous Korea watchers I’ve interviewed since Trump took office have said the current U.S. president does not have a clear policy on North Korea — as evidenced by vacillating messages that have come out of the president’s own mouth and Twitter feed in the last year. In just six months, the rhetoric has gone from “fire and fury” to the current plan for direct engagement at the highest level. The White House attributes this development to its policy of “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang. The U.S. led the way in U.N. Security Council sanctions that have put an unprecedented economic squeeze on Kim. For the first time, according to the South Koreans, Kim has agreed to freezing nuclear and missile tests and accepting U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises.
ditions were not ripe for negotiations with Pyongyang a