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7 things to understand about Trump’s talks with N. Korea

  • FILE-- President Donald Trump speaks during a joint news conference with President Moon Jae-In of South Korea at the Blue House, the presidential residence in Seoul, on Nov. 7, 2017. Shocking and yet somehow not surprising, Trump’s decision in March of 2018 to do what no other sitting president has done and meet in person with a North Korean leader reflects an audacious and supremely self-confident approach to international affairs. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

President Donald Trump has accepted North Korea’s invitation for direct talks with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, to be held by May. It’s a big deal, but you’re probably wondering how big a deal, what it means and how to think about it.

It’s impossible to say for sure. But here are seven things I’ve learned in the past few years from covering North Korea, diplomacy and, more recently, the Trump administration’s unusual approach to foreign policy.

1. Short term, it reduces the risk of war.

Even just preparing for talks changes North Korean and U.S. incentives in ways that make us all less likely to be obliterated in a fiery nuclear inferno. That’s good!

The biggest risk was probably always an accident or miscalculation that slid into unintended war, or maybe a unilateral U.S. strike that escalated out of control.

This more or less takes those scenarios off the table. Both sides now have reason to reduce rather than increase tensions, to read one another’s actions as peaceful rather than hostile and to preserve the diplomatic efforts in which both have invested political capital.

Still, that only lasts until the talks themselves.

2. Mismatched signals may have set up the talks to fail.

Usually, before high-level talks like these, both sides spend a long time telegraphing their expected outcomes.

Such signals serve as public commitments, both to the other side of the negotiation and to citizens back home. It’s a way for both sides to test each other’s demands and offers, reducing the risk of surprise or embarrassment.

That is not really how things have proceeded with the United States and North Korea. Trump has already committed to granting North Korea one of its most desired concessions: a high-level meeting between the heads of state.

In exchange, North Korea has not publicly committed to anything. It has, quite cannily, channeled its public communications through South Korea, making it easier to renege.

Further, Trump has declared “denuclearization” as his minimal acceptable outcome for talks, making it harder for him to accept a more modest (but more achievable!) outcome and costlier for him to walk away.

3. The sides do not agree on the point of talking.

It’s worth belaboring the costs of skipping the usual process of mutual public signaling.

South Korean officials have said Kim is willing to enter talks for “denuclearization” — there’s that word again — which is perhaps why Trump seems to believe this will happen.

But Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based analyst, writes in a column in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that “denuclearization” means vastly different things to the United States and North Korea.

Americans understand the word as describing North Korea’s full nuclear disarmament, which is very difficult to imagine happening.

But North Koreans, she writes, tend to mean it as a kind of mutual and incremental disarmament in which the United States also gives up weapons.

Normally, the United States and North Korea would have issued months, even years, of public statements on their goals for direct talks, to clear all this up.

But, again, the Americans have made splashy public commitments while letting the North Koreans get by without doing the same.

4. The Trump administration has gotten the process backward.

It’s practically an axiom of international diplomacy that you only bring heads of state together at the very end of talks, after lower-level officials have done the dirty work.

Negotiators need to be free to back down from demands. Or to contradict themselves. Or to play good cop, bad cop. Or to walk away. Lower-level officials can lose face or sacrifice credibility for the sake of talks. Heads of state are much too constrained.

Robert E. Kelly, a professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, wrote on Twitter that, in a more typical process, “there would be a series of concessions and counterconcessions building trust and credibility over time (likely years) eventually rising to a serious discussion of denuclearization.”

Instead, the Trump administration is jumping straight to the last step.

5. The State Department is in a shambles.

Wouldn’t this be a good moment to have a U.S. ambassador to South Korea? Or an undersecretary of state for arms control and international security?

Both posts are empty. The desk for assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs is occupied by a respected but interim official who has clashed with the White House. Her boss, the undersecretary for political affairs, is retiring.

Trump lacks the institutional support and assistance that more experienced presidents found essential. There will be fewer high-level diplomats to run parallel talks, fewer midlevel officials to assist and brief the president, fewer analysts to feel out North Korean intentions and capabilities.

This is why the emerging conventional wisdom among analysts, as summed up by The Economist, is that “Mr. Trump — a man who boasts about his television ratings and who is bored by briefings and scornful of foreign alliances — could end up being played like a gold-plated violin.”

6. Everything could turn on the president’s personality.

Trump’s headstrong personalization of North Korea policy may be the most significant aspect of all this.

It means that talks and their outcome will be determined, to an unprecedented degree, by Trump’s personal biases and impulses. By his mood at the time of talks. By his particular style of negotiation.

Kelly expressed concern over Trump’s “chaotic management style, erratic, moody personality and chronic staffing problems.”

He added, “That’s not ideology talking. I am a registered Republican and worked once for a GOP congressman.”

Trump’s negotiating record as president, mostly focused on domestic legislative matters, is instructive.

He has tended to oscillate unpredictably between policies, throwing talks over the budget or health care into chaos. He has set members of his own party against one another, weakening their position against Democrats. And he has offered the Democrats sweeping concessions on a whim, to the surprise of his party.

When legislative efforts have stalled, Trump has at times lashed out. In domestic politics, that can mean publicly denigrating his target or pressuring them to resign. In a heavily militarized standoff between nuclear powers, the stakes would be higher.

“If Trump gets all valedictory over simple willingness to talk, he may also tack hard in the other direction when hopes are dashed,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, wrote on Twitter.

7. North Korea has already achieved a symbolic victory.

For North Korea, high-level talks are a big win in their own right. Kim seeks to transform his country from a rogue pariah into an established nuclear power, a peer to the United States, a player on the international stage.

That wins Kim international acknowledgment and heightened status, as well as significant domestic credibility.

“Kim is not inviting Trump so that he can surrender North Korea’s weapons,” Jeffrey Lewis, a Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, wrote on Twitter. “Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that his investment in nuclear and missile capabilities has forced the United States to treat him as an equal.”

That’s been a North Korean priority since the 1990s.

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