In a move that took even his own State Department by surprise, Donald Trump declared that he would be meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The fact that the American entity responsible for conducting diplomacy was not clued in to this diplomatic deal is a gigantic red flag, and it sure looks like Trump just wants a propaganda win, which is exactly what Kim Jong Un gets out of this. This isn't all bad though. The South Koreans sure look like they maneuvered their way out of Trump's moronic trade war by facilitating these talks.
Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College who worked on the nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union, laid out what can be expected from these “talks.”
It really cannot be understated how big of a diplomatic win this is for North Korea. In 1988, they released a propaganda film titled The Country I Saw, and in 2012, the government debuted parts 2 through 5, effectively communicating what they wanted out of a relationship with the United States. Jeffrey Lewis is the Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and he wrote about The Country I Saw just after it came out in 2012:
The movie—actually four full-length sequels to a 1988 propaganda piece called The Country I Saw—is the fictional story of how one unassuming Japanese professor of international relations learns to stop worrying and love North Korea’s bomb.
The climax of the movie is where Donald Trump comes in, as he literally just pledged to reenact the scene that North Korea depicted as a major, major victory for them. Per Lewis:
One of the enduring questions has been what the DPRK really seeks from the United States. Most experienced voices believe that the leadership of the DPRK is seeking recognition for its regime, ultimately in the form of normalized relations. High-level contacts, such as summits and special envoys, are important evidence for North Korea that the world accepts the regime. The Country I Saw does much to reinforce the general view of a DPRK leadership that has set securing the legitimacy and stability of its regime as the over-riding foreign policy goal. That a visit by Bill Clinton instead of Bill Richardson is the big reveal at the end of the movie says a lot about how North Korea sees its nuclear diplomacy.
Trump is basing his achievement on the incredibly dubious prospect that North Korea will give up its nuclear program. Even though Lewis highlights some hope for a normal(ish) relationship, it’s difficult to see how it happens under Donald Trump’s denuclearized terms.
The movie is rather less encouraging on the subject of whether North Korea will negotiate away its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Particularly notable is the observation that ideological conflict no longer dominates international politics. North Korea’s place in the world, at least in The Country I Saw, is entirely a function of missile and nuclear capabilities. The United States may be able to achieve temporary reduction in tensions and even freeze certain programs, but it seems equally clear that the DPRK has concluded that its survival as a functioning state in the international system is entirely a product of its military capabilities. Soft power is not concept that gets much attention in The Country I Saw.
Not to mention, the “achievement” made by Trump is only an agreement to talk. There is nothing scheduled, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined.”
Just like how he was going to repeal Obamacare on day one? Or the DACA bill that he was going to sign? Or the interview with Robert Mueller he wants to have? The president is an expert in saying things and not following up on them, and given that the State Department seemingly had no idea this major announcement was about to happen, it seems like a good bet that Trump and Kim Jong Un will never meet face to face. Ultimately, that would likely be the best option to happen in this ordeal, because as Trump joked at the annual Gridiron Club Dinner: “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.”
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.