Opinion

Indira A. R. Lakshmanan

Trump’s North Korea gamble: Crazy, or crazy like a fox?

TOPSHOT - A South Korean soldier walks past a television screen showing pictures of US President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on March 9, 2018. US President Donald Trump agreed on March 8 to a historic first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a stunning development in America's high-stakes nuclear standoff with North Korea. / AFP PHOTO / Jung Yeon-jeJUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
ung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images
A South Korean soldier in Seoul walks past a television screen showing pictures of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday.

I come to praise President Trump, not to bury him.

With apologies to Shakespeare, bear with me: It would be hypocrisy to condemn Trump’s saber-rattling and then criticize his sudden embrace of diplomacy. We don’t know if President Keep-em-Guessing will make an Artful Deal or a mess of the North Korean problem. But if the choice is between Trump pushing a “Nuclear Button” that’s “bigger & more powerful,” as he has boasted, or a diplomatic showdown between “Little Rocket Man” and “The Dotard,” any rational person would opt for the latter. Even so, the strategy comes with serious risks.

Trump’s left-field play isn’t surprising when you consider he sees himself as a rule-breaking, deal-making, history-shaker who alone can achieve what the establishment figures who underestimate him cannot: a Nixon-goes-to-China breakthrough. It’s also TV ratings gold: a headline-grabbing distraction from the Mueller investigation that keeps Stormy Daniels in a teacup.

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Even the transatlantic foreign policy establishment is abuzz over the impromptu announcement that Trump will meet Kim Jong Un by May. “I prefer talking to some of the other options,” Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state, dryly told the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum, an annual gathering of top current and former US and EU officials. Albright is the highest ranking US official to visit North Korea, where she famously clinked glasses in 2000 with Kim Jong Il, father of the current dictator. While she said she’s glad Trump is open to talks, she’s “concerned” about his “lack of preparation.”

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When the elder Kim invited then-President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang in 2000, Clinton sent Albright instead, reluctant to reward Kim before concessions were made. He was right to be dubious; the US effort to expand a 1994 agreement mothballing plutonium reactors hit a dead end. In 2002, when the Bush administration confronted Pyongyang over a secret uranium-enrichment program, the North resumed nuclear weapons development. By 2006, the regime carried out a nuclear weapons test, the first of six — despite promises to give up nuclear weapons. They’re not exactly trustworthy negotiating partners.

The most frightening scenario, another former official said, would be a poorly-planned summit that goes badly and prompts Trump to abandon talks in favor of a military strike.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that the man who fancies himself a master negotiator is equipped to get the better of a tyrant who, along with his late father, has flattered, tricked, and betrayed rivals and reneged on more agreements than our president. Trump revels in being an unpredictable hard-bargainer, now backed by the US nuclear arsenal, who’s fired people; Kim is a ruthless totalitarian all-powerful dictator who’s executed scores of loyalists, including the uncle who mentored him, and ordered his half-brother assassinated by a chemical weapon, according to intelligence agencies.

The United States has tried nearly every carrot and stick without success over the last 25 years: sanctions; export controls; bellicose language (remember “axis of evil”?); isolation; military exercises; food aid; fuel assistance; bilateral and multilateral talks. Meanwhile, the regime has conducted six nuclear tests and three tests last year of an intercontinental ballistic missile, one of which appeared capable of reaching the United States. The Kims have long sought to leverage their nuclear program to force recognition by the United States and security guarantees for the survival of their corrupt, abusive regime.

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“I’m concerned this could go very badly without any clear agenda or preparation,” Senator Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me in Brussels. “If, at the end of this, Kim Jong Un has gotten his photo-op with the president and still has nuclear weapons that can hit us, that’s a great day for him and a disaster for the US.”

Don’t be surprised by more pendulum swings ahead. Last August, Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” In September, he dubbed Kim “Little Rocket Man.” In October he tweeted that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” In November he tweeted, “I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe someday that will happen!” Tillerson said the United States was “a long way from negotiations” — hours before the talks were announced.

Trump may think a photo with the North Korean leader would be an historic notch in his belt, but without concrete, verifiable nuclear concessions, the North Koreans will have played us. “They’ve broken every agreement they’ve ever made,” Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense under President Obama, told me. “There is opportunity — but also serious risk — associated with these two highly volatile leaders meeting.”

North Korea surely will be watching to see if the United States honors the Iran nuclear agreement forged by the Obama administration. Trump has threatened to withdraw if international partners don’t agree to amend the deal by May — the same month he’s due to meet Kim.

Mike Rogers, a Republican former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told me on the sidelines of meetings in Brussels he’s concerned about Trump “giving away” a presidential summit with nothing in return. “Trump thinks this is going to make his reputation. But they have nuclear bombs and missiles that can reach the US. He better get it right,” Rogers said.

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.