Trump’s unconventional approach to international relations, especially when dealing with North Korea, means an unconventional outcome is probable on June 12.
Reality check: the June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be a success because Trump will call it a success. Both leaders want it to succeed and both leaders love good publicity. The expert’s eye will not matter to them politically because it will be packaged and sold to key constituents as historic and unprecedented. Even if the summit yields no results or breaks down, both leaders have an out—they can spin it in any direction to save face or they can each blame the other for any breakdowns.
The noise, anticipation and skepticism will all crescendo as the date draws near. As risky as this summit is, and as unprepared as Trump may be, Washington still has a rare opportunity to make the best of “the water that’s already been spilled,” as the Korean saying goes. It would be a mistake not to take full advantage of the political space that has been created for the first time in six years. It’s a rare and unique opportunity to seek clarity directly from Kim himself—the sole decisionmaker in the top-down authoritarian North Korean regime—and to try to convince him directly to choose between his nuclear weapons or a brighter future.
The odds are stacked against Washington, which has failed to change Pyongyang’s strategic calculus over the course of several decades, and it is harder now with a more confident and savvy North Korea armed with nuclear-tipped inter-continental ballistic missiles. The challenges facing Washington are further exacerbated by an American president who may not fully understand the complexities of both the nuclear and regional components intertwined within this issue. But the art of negotiations means a chance to bargain hard with one’s eyes wide open, to try to make the impossible possible, and keep the diplomatic process alive to continuously test each other and avoid kinetic means.