A BACKHANDED compliment to Donald Trump lurked in a recent editorial in the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North Korean Workers’ Party. A splenetic call to lock America’s president in an asylum, the piece described Mr Trump as “dolt-like” and an “old lunatic”. But it also called him “the boss of gangsters”, hinting at a different view. As rulers of a literal gangster-state, three generations of the Kim dynasty have yearned to be treated as equals by America. If they must deal with the West, they want to talk to the boss.
That explains the mixed emotions of diplomats, spies and foreign officials who work on North Korea after Mr Trump accepted an invitation to meet the country’s 36-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un. The offer was passed on by South Korean envoys and has yet to be publicly confirmed by the North. But Mr Kim is reportedly ready to discuss getting rid of his nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees. Anyone who has negotiated with North Korea “knows that at some point there has to be a leader-to-leader meeting, because on their side only one person can decide”, says a former official from George W. Bush’s administration, making a case for cautious optimism about a Trump-Kim summit. But Korea-hands also fear that, by agreeing to meet, Mr Trump has offered a big concession up front.
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The president’s supporters insist that North Korea has been brought to the table by harsh sanctions, imposed after Trumpian tough talk at last scared such laggards as China and Russia into curbing trade. More cautious voices, such as Evans Revere, a former Asia expert at the State Department, suggest that the North opened the door “in anticipation” of a further tightening of sanctions which, if done right, could take the Kim regime “up to the edge of its ability to survive, politically and economically”. Either way, more pressure is being applied now than in 2005, the last time that North Korea promised to dismantle its nuclear-weapons programme under international supervision in exchange for aid and American pledges not to invade. The North, of course, broke that promise, as it has all undertakings about its weapons programme.
Nonetheless, James Clapper, a former Director of National Intelligence and no swooning Trump fan, sees value in a top-level summit, arguing: “We need to hear from Kim Jong Un himself what it would take for him to feel secure.” The North believes in the power of great men, says Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official and America’s special envoy to multilateral disarmament talks with North Korea from 2003 to 2006. Even as they haggled and wrangled, he recalls, North Korean diplomats would push for meetings with President Bush, saying: “If your president could just meet our leader, they could cut through a lot of all this.” Back then, Team America would reply that leaders meet at the end of talks.
The most optimistic see a Nixon-to-China-style opening for Mr Trump to forge a North Korea deal that American conservatives might spurn from another president. Trump voters are a chin-jutting bunch: 84% told a new Economist/YouGov poll that they support military action against North Korea, even if it leads to war with China. Yet at a rally on March 10th, supporters meekly stopped booing mentions of Kim Jong Un when Mr Trump told them that a summit could be “very positive”.
What could go wrong
All the same, there are endless pitfalls. The Kim regime is full of officials who have negotiated with America, starting with the foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho. Mr Trump has not nominated an ambassador to South Korea and the top North Korean envoy at the State Department recently resigned. Mr Trump sacked his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, without consulting him about his decision to agree to a summit.
American experts on Korea and concerned foreign allies alike expect their advice to be shrugged off by the president, a man bored by briefings, suspicious of alliances and focused (his own advisers admit) on quick wins that make him look good. Mr Trump scorns all those involved in past dealings with North Korea as chumps whose weakness explains why the Kim regime is still around.
Daniel Russel, a career diplomat, ran North Korea policy under President Barack Obama. If briefing Mr Trump, he would stress that America is strengthened by its alliances with South Korea and Japan. When North Korea talks about America needing to abandon “hostile policies”, that is a trap, he adds: code for removing American troops from Korean soil and ditching defence treaties with Asian allies.
Korea-hands worry that it is de-escalation that Kim Jong Un is selling, not denuclearisation. They fear he wants his country to be accepted as a nuclear-armed power, in keeping with his yearning to meet America’s president as an equal. One possible ploy might be to forswear missiles that can hit American cities but to preserve a small nuclear arsenal, perhaps under international supervision. Such a deal could cause other Asian countries to seek nuclear arms and raise the spectre of nuclear smuggling. China, meanwhile, is jumpy about any Trump-Kim deal, for fear that Mr Trump, no longer constrained by his desire for China to enforce sanctions, might become pushier about trade.
Last year Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, quoted the president as saying that any war to stop Mr Kim should be fought in Asia, so that, “If thousands die, they are going to die over there.” Faced with such ruthlessness, America’s allies in Asia may overcome their misgivings about the summit.