Lee Jin-man, AP
People watch a TV screen showing file footage of U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, May 26, 2018.

President Donald Trump has a way of turning convention on its head. That presents uncertainties in advance of Tuesday’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It does not, however, mean those talks can’t succeed.

The summit offers an historic opportunity to ease one of the world’s most vexing and troubling concerns: How to deal with a North Korean leader who insists on developing nuclear weapons and using them to threaten the free world.

We don’t want to overstate the possibilities. In the days leading up to the meeting, the White House seems to have tamped down expectations, billing it as more or less a meet-and-greet opportunity that could lead to future talks.

But despite all that, and despite the president’s insistence on dispensing with some of the normal protocols of international relations, Trump cannot afford to ignore the history of relations with North Korea, nor can he afford to be unprepared for Kim’s probable maneuvers.

Even if the meeting is little more than an opportunity to establish a relationship, here are some things we hope the president will do:

  • Let the North Korean leader know the United States expects nothing short of total denuclearization. While Kim has hinted at a willingness to do this, the president must insist on defining this as not only destroying missile test sites and no longer producing weapons, but also destroying the weapons already in existence. Kim may try to impose a different definition.
  • Establish a firm timeline. Any eventual deal must include a definite and rapid schedule for eliminating weapons.
  • Let Kim know there will be severe and enumerated penalties for noncompliance outlined in any eventual deal, and that the U.S. intends to follow through on those penalties.
  • Kim must understand that the U.S. will demand verification of denuclearization, and that the U.S. intends to set the terms as to what that means.
  • The president must make it clear that the United States will not produce any concessions, including the lifting of sanctions, until after Kim has verifiably destroyed his weapons.
  • The release of all foreign political prisoners must be part of any deal.
  • The president has threatened to walk out if he thinks Kim isn’t serious about working toward an agreement. He must be willing to do so.

Trump cannot afford to forget the lessons of the past. Kim’s father and grandfather forged a record of broken promises. In 1994, former President Jimmy Carter struck a deal (without President Clinton’s consent), in which North Korean leader Kim Il Sung agreed to use nuclear technology only to produce energy. The United States shouldn’t be fooled again.

In addition, whatever agreement Trump eventually hopes to reach should be done in concert with U.S. allies, especially Japan and South Korea, both of whom would be directly affected.

Usually, the president would agree to meet with the leader of a belligerent nation only after an agreement is struck. The public relations benefits of having the media witness the two leaders together would be held out as an incentive, especially when the belligerent leader is a brutal dictator longing to be a player in international politics.

12 comments on this story

By meeting with Kim on Tuesday, Trump would concede that incentive from the start. However, that unusual step may result in a benefit for what may only be considered an unusual summit. It could signal to the world that one of its oldest conflicts is easing.

Beyond that, however, the rest of the world is correct in watching with a mix of anticipation and anxiety. Dictators typically don’t change their stripes, and the U.S. seldom has had a president with so little experience in international relations.

The world will watch and pray, and hope that a 68-year-old war soon will end.