“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” President Donald Trump told Bloomberg News on Monday, referring to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“Honored?” That word was an egregious mistake. It not only helps legitimize perhaps the world’s worst tyrant, it also boosts an anti-American candidate in South Korea’s crucial presidential election next week. No wonder the American president has attracted so much criticism from all parts of the political spectrum in the past few hours.
The use of “honored” does not appear to be a slip of the tongue. On Sunday, Trump appeared to go out of his way to compliment North Korea’s young dictator. “A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else,” the president said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.”
The “smart cookie” remark followed similar ones Trump made last month about Kim. The Washington Post called Trump’s comments “empathetic.”
Trump’s focus on Kim’s character and life story is surprising. His policy on North Korea, as far as we can tell what it is at this point, is less impressive. There are two fundamental problems with the substance of what the president has been saying about what he will do.
First, now is not the time to be talking about talking to Kim. The international community for decades has tried to come to agreements with him and his two predecessors: his father and grandfather. None of those agreements, however, has worked.
There have been many reasons why agreements have failed. For one thing, due to internal instability, Pyongyang often has not been in a position to deal in good faith with outsiders. That appears to be the case now, as a series of incidents beginning in late January, indicate. The assassination of Kim Jong Un’s elder half-brother, among other things, shows how insecure the current Kim ruler feels.
Moreover, talks failed, whatever their format or the conditions under which they were held, because the Kims were merely trying to buy themselves time in order to develop an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nukes. So I am sure that, in any future negotiations, the current Kim ruler will stall and deceive, because these two tactics have worked so well for his family in the past.
All this means that the only time to begin talking with Kim is when he realizes he has no choice but to disarm. Diplomacy is not only talking with an adversary. Sometimes it is the coercive use of national power to convince an adversary to talk in the future. So talks at this early stage of the Trump administration are bound to fail.
Second, Trump’s comment on being honored to talk with Kim boosts the notion that the international community should talk and engage with the North Korean leader at this time. That perception is bound to help Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, one of the candidates in South Korea’s May 9 presidential election. Moon has taken a similar position in the campaign.
Moon, a “progressive,” is at his core anti-American. And he wants to begin a new round of the Sunshine Policy, named after the Aesop fable in which the Sun is able to persuade a man to take off his coat after the North Wind fails to do so.
That policy, pursued by former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, is essentially one of unconditional assistance to the North and has been appropriately compared to appeasement. Sunshine would be inconsistent with America’s general approach of trying to deny Kim Jong Un the means to develop his nuclear weapons and missiles.
In short, if Moon is elected next week, Seoul might effectively switch sides. So the last thing Trump should be doing is making acceptable a policy of starting negotiations with Kim Jong Un at this time.
Nothing good ever happens when there is daylight between Washington’s and Seoul’s policies on North Korea. In the last years of the Obama administration, the policies of the two capitals were one and the same. Now, it appears America and South Korea are set to take off in different directions.
And Trump’s comments Monday about negotiations comes after he did two big favors to Moon’s campaign last Thursday. In his Reuters interview that day, Trump both angered and energized progressives with his suggestion that South Korea pay $1 billion for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. The financial and other conditions regarding THAAD, as the missile shield is known, have already been fixed. Trying to renegotiate the deal after it has been signed, sealed, and delivered will only make the pro-American conservatives even less popular than they are at this moment.
Trump in his Reuters interview also threatened to terminate the U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement, and this is another instance of Washington looking unreliable to the South Korean electorate.
It seems Trump is determined, on the eve of the crucial election, to help the candidate who wants to undermine American interests. At the moment, there are many moving parts on the Korean Peninsula, and it’s not entirely clear Mr. Trump knows the effect of his words on an increasingly complex situation.