If President Donald Trump does meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un later this year (few details have emerged since the surprise announcement), he must use the opportunity to impress upon Kim that the U.S. is serious about its denuclearization demands.
Simply opening a dialog with the ruthless leader would reward him for bad behavior and give him that which he desires most — respect among the world’s most powerful nations.
Plenty of reasons exist for the leader of the free world not to meet face-to-face with Kim. The North Korean leader has made explicit threats to attack the U.S. mainland and its territories. A North Korean propaganda video last year showed what looked to be a simulated nuclear attack on Washington, and the regime has made specific threats to attack Guam. Some of its nuclear tests have come perilously close to Japan, an important U.S. ally.
These reckless acts come in addition to credible reports of public executions within North Korea and of dire living conditions among its people. Three Americans remain imprisoned by the regime, continuing a long list of detentions through the years for nebulous “crimes,” including leaving a Bible in a nightclub. Last year, American university student Otto Warmbier was released to the United States in critical condition. He died soon after.
Previous American presidents have declined such face-to-face meetings with North Korean leaders. Trump’s decision to reverse that position comes despite the complete lack of a diplomatic framework between the two countries. Generally, lower-level diplomats hammer out difficult issues between nations before top leaders get involved. The Trump administration has not filled the position of ambassador to South Korea, creating another diplomatic void in the area.
Still, a head-to-head meeting between the two leaders could bring positive results, but only if Trump impresses on Kim the seriousness of U.S. determination to end his threats to the free world.
First, it is entirely possible that Kim operates under deluded assumptions about U.S. power, capability and intentions. His cruel suppressions of expression and anti-government criticisms may have incentivized his closest aides to tell him what he wants to hear, rather than the truth. He may believe the United States is weak or incapable of responding to his provocations.
Trump must cure him of any such misconceptions, letting him know in detail how the United States intends to respond if Kim continues to escalate tensions or if he continues his nuclear program.
Second, the president must be wary of promises in exchange for concessions. If the meeting happens, Trump would be the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader, but he would not be the first person who has held the title of president to do so. Former President Jimmy Carter met with Kim Il Sung in 1994.
That meeting came at a time when President Bill Clinton was seriously preparing for a military strike to keep the regime from developing nuclear weapons. Carter negotiated an unauthorized agreement with North Korea that infuriated the Clinton administration but left it little choice other than to accept.
North Korea continued its nuclear program despite its promises to Carter. Indeed, that agreement may have bought the regime the time it needed to develop weapons.
Third, Americans should remember that dialog is better than bullets. The president’s meeting, if it happens, could relieve tensions by opening up a high-level channel of communication between the leaders.43 comments on this story
And should North Korea refuse to change its current march toward nuclearization and accept conditions that enhance world peace, the willingness of the U.S. to seek a diplomatic solution first will provide support should a military option ever become necessary.
Dictators typically do not change their stripes. Kim isn’t likely to relinquish his own power by increasing freedoms or weakening his defenses. The U.S. will continue to need help from China to corral Kim and his ambitions.
But if Trump approaches a meeting with Kim intent on firmly making the U.S. position clear, it could at least educate Kim about the stakes involved in those ambitions.