The Summit That Won’t Happen

So let’s talk about the proposed Trump-Kim summit. I’m betting it will never happen. Indeed, the White House already is walking it back.

Jeffrey Lewis wrote in Foreign Policy,

Although President Trump seems to be under the impression that the meeting would be to discuss the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the North Koreans haven’t said anything remotely like that.

In fact, all we have from the North Koreans is the secondhand account of a South Korean diplomat of his boozy dinner with Kim Jong Un and an email sent by the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations to Anna Fifield at the Washington Post.

What Kim said, according to the South Korean envoy Chung Eui-yong, was pretty thin gruel: that North Korea would not need nuclear weapons if “military threats towards the North are cleared and the security of its regime is guaranteed.” The email to Fifield didn’t seem to mention it at all, merely offering to explain North Korea’s position to the United States.

Jonathan Chait describes how this came about.

Donald Trump snared headlines across the world by announcing yesterday he would meet with North Korea, breaking with years of American policy that held such a meeting could only happen if North Korea made concessions on its nuclear program first. It turns out Trump’s foreign policy masterstroke did not come as the result of a Metternichtian calculation but instead a completely spontaneous outburst.

South Korean official Chung Eui-yong was in the White House yesterday meeting with other officials. Trump decided to see Chung right away; maybe Fox News was in repeats or something. Trump “then asked Mr. Chung to tell him about his meeting with Mr. Kim,” reports the New York Times. “When Mr. Chung said that the North Korean leader had expressed a desire to meet Mr. Trump, the president immediately said he would do it, and directed Mr. Chung to announce it to the White House press corps.”

It sounds from this account that Trump had no real idea that North Korea has always wanted a face-to-face meeting with the U.S. president, and the U.S. has always imposed conditions. That would certainly be the logical interpretation of this account, given that, in the last week, Trump has confused North Korea with the other, extremely different South Korea, and demanded a laughably tiny $1 billion trade concession from China when he was supposed to demand $100 billion. It certainly appears Trump believed, in the moment, that North Korea had not been interested in a meeting until then, so he needed to take the deal before they changed their mind. Whatever. Art of the Deal.

Trump confused North and South Korea? Yes, Trump claimed that North Korean officials called him on the phone.

“Now we’re talking,” Trump said, referring to North Korea. “They, by the way, called up a couple of days ago; they said, ‘We would like to talk.’ And I said, ‘So would we, but you have to de-nuke.’”

We Now Know that this conversation never happened. The only phone conversations he had was with South Korean officials, which suggests he was confused about which country he was talking to.

Regarding the $1 billion trade concession from China, Matt Yglesias explains that Trump boldly announced he was asking for a $1 billion concession. Which is a joke, because the actual trade deficit is $375.2 billion, or more than $1 billion per day.  Trump was supposed to ask for a $100 billion concession, apparently. That rumbling sound you hear is China laughing its ass off.

With this promising start, what could go wrong?

The Kim family has been wanting a summit meeting with the U.S. for at least 20 years. Back to Jeffrey Lewis:

North Korea has been desperate for a state-visit from a sitting U.S. president since at least the Clinton administration. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has said that the United States has not made any concessions, but let’s be clear: THE MEETING IS THE CONCESSION. …

… Trump seems to have thought that Kim would meet to give up his nuclear weapons. But for Kim the meeting is about being treated as an equal because of his nuclear and missile programs.

In other words, in agreeing to this meeting Trump didn’t exactly accomplish anything any other president couldn’t have accomplished. It’s just that Trump’s predecessors weren’t idiot enough to agree to a summit meeting with whichever Kim was ruling North Korea at the time. And with no one with any expertise on North Korea in Trump’s administration, there’s really no hope that such a summit meeting wouldn’t be an unmitigated disaster for the U.S.

Now Sarah Sanders is explaining that the summit won’t take place unless Kim Jong Un agrees to conditions on denuclearizing first, which is the same policy the past several previous presidents followed, which is why no summit ever happened. Back to Jonathan Chait:

Which means Trump shot off his mouth and got excited and then his advisers had to explain to him why he can’t do that. Or maybe they haven’t explained it to him and are backing out without his permission. Whatever the explanation, the major policy change Trump announced appears to be completely moot because he plays the president on television but isn’t really president.

At American Conservative, Daniel Larison writes that there’s a real possibility that such a summit, were it to happen, would make everything so much worse. If the meeting produces no results, which is likely, the two nations might not be able to just slip back into the old status quo of mutual saber rattling. Actual armed conflict could happen. No sensible person wants that, but we’re not dealing with sensible people here. On either side.