How Donald Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un could go very wrong

President Trump has painted himself into a corner with the proposed Kim summit. Experts say it could go south, fast

By Matthew Rozsa

Published April 10, 2018 4:58AM (EDT)

Kim Jong-Un; Donald Trump (Getty Images/Montage by Salon)
Kim Jong-Un; Donald Trump (Getty Images/Montage by Salon)

It's strange to think that more than three years have passed since the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy "The Interview" caused a real-life geopolitical conflict between the United States and North Korea. The underlying joke in that movie was that American celebrity culture — and the Kim dynasty's well-known obsession with it — might lead to the downfall of that nation's tyrannical regime. Now we have a president whose previous job was as a pop-culture celebrity, and he too is threatening to have a one-on-one meeting with North Korea's autocratic ruler.

What could go wrong?

The key difference, of course, is that this is the real world instead of a lowbrow comedy. That doesn't automatically mean that Trump's mission is doomed to failure; there is something to be said for theatricality and how it can lead to the shaping of wise statesmanship. Surely the desire for world peace should outweigh anyone's dislike of the president — and so it's hard not to root for him to strike a deal for peace with North Korea.

The problem is that the very circumstances that Trump created, and that have opened up this opportunity with are also, in a cruel irony, the ones that will make it so immensely difficult for him to achieve that necessary artful deal.

"The thing that Trump has going for him in this respect is that he is unpredictable and erratic in his tweets, his statements, his positions, quite frankly, on issues related to North Korea's nuclear program," said Jamie Fly, a foreign policy expert with the German Marshall Fund who served as foreign policy adviser to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"So I think that serves the purpose of keeping the North Koreans off balance," Fly continued. "Some of that unpredictability, I think, is useful in this context and may be why the North Koreans seem now to be seeking this off ramp from the escalatory cycle that they were in previously and seem to be open to talks."

Even though Trump has opened the door to dialogue with North Korea, his own theatrical nature — and, in particular, the bombastic promises he has made about forcing North Korea to bend to America's will — have backed him into a corner.

"The challenge, for President Trump, will be that at the end of the day, even if he goes through with the summit, it's very unlikely that the North Koreans will agree to make significant concessions related to their nuclear program," Fly told Salon. "Previous administrations have been through this cycle of escalation and negotiations in the past, and it hasn't produced any significant change in the trajectory of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction or its missile programs."

If Trump "comes out of the summit without any significant offers by the North Koreans," Fly continued, "I think he's going to face a tough choice pretty quickly of whether he continues the pressure campaign through additional sanctions and economic pressure. But given his rhetoric in the past, he may have to face expedited consideration of various military options."

Laura Rosenberger, who was a foreign policy adviser for Hillary for America, said that the stakes for this meeting are quite different.

"There are pros and cons of meeting and there are pros and cons of this meeting," Rosenberger told Salon. "And the reason I make that distinction is that normally when you have a summit between two leaders, there are months of planning that go into that summit." She added that this was particularly true "when you're talking about a summit with a dictatorial, adversarial leader" who has never held a meeting with a U.S. president.

Like Fly, Rosenberger noted that a big part of the problem here was the process that Trump had used in deciding to have this meeting with Kim Jong-un.

"If you're the North Koreans, the meeting is one of the major things that you want to achieve," she said. Under normal circumstances, the American side would put such a meeting "at the end of a process, during which you've had your team work out all of the very difficult issues we have on the table with the North Koreans.

"What Trump has done here is put that [meeting] at the front, without a clear sense of what the agenda is, having given up the leverage we would have by the fact of this meeting. That means the stakes here are extraordinarily high. The consequences of failure are quite significant, in the sense that ... once you have a meeting at the presidential level, you don't have much runway after that.

"One of the things that worries me," Rosenberger continued, "is that if there is failure to reach agreement on at least the process moving forward — I can't imagine under any circumstance that they reach meaningful agreement on anything other than broad platitudes at the table — you need agreement on a process to work out these issues after the meeting. If that doesn't come about, given what we have already seen from this administration I think we risk falling off the cliff to a military option."

Fly echoed Rosenberger in noting that the Trump administration had not done the "preparatory groundwork" other administrations had engaged in prior to high profile meetings between themselves and North Korean leaders. (Fly pointed to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's meeting with Kim Jong-il under President Bill Clinton). As a result, even if Trump can avoid creating a situation where the United States and North Korea are compelled to go to war, he could simply trigger a process that produces nothing but "endless talks" — the exact outcome that Trump had repeatedly denounced when it occurred under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Like the vacuous protagonists in "The Interview," Trump will have both a domestic and foreign policy audience (particularly in China) that he needs to impress when he meets with Kim Jong-un next month. The president has already demonstrated that, like his celluloid counterparts, he doesn't see much distinction between the theatricality needed for success in show business and the decisive actions that will yield results in a presidency. If he is right on this occasion, the world may have reason to congratulate him for his highly unorthodox process, including the "Little Rocket Man" war of words that led up to this.

If he is wrong — well, the possibilities are nearly too dreadful to contemplate.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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