President Trump recently announced he intends to meet with Kim Jong-Un, dictator of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This meeting is a step in the right direction, using direct negotiation to resolve conflict, but the disingenuousness and ineptitude of each side leave this meeting likely accomplishing little.
Tensions between the two countries have been ever present for the better part of the last century, with the Cold War-proxy Korean War placed on hold. The threat the isolated nation poses has greatly increased recently, following a string of nuclear tests conducted by North Korea. Meanwhile, America has done little to defuse escalating tensions, with the president mocking and mortally threatening North Korea. Trump’s meeting with Kim is the first major diplomatic inroad toward resolving this simmering conflict.
Americans often have unrealistic expectations of diplomacy. We expect to convince others to kowtow to our demands and interests without having to commit to changes of our own, assuming American military might well be enough to get other nations to do what we want. However, the risks of a potential nuclear war — the lives at stake, and Trump’s horrific threat to “totally destroy” North Korea — should reserve an actual armed conflict for last-resort consideration.
Sanctions, usually touted as a softer form of punishing a nation, are ineffective and cruel; they tend to hurt a nation’s poorest citizens rather than the leaders they’re intended to pressure.
The best way to resolve differences between two nations is, as it has always been, by simply talking. Perhaps the looming possibility of economic sanctions or a potential war can provide weight to the agreement we come to with North Korea through peace talks. But, it shouldn’t be our primary strategy, and we should be reluctant to follow through on those threats. Direct, equitable and honest negotiation is the proper strategy for handling U.S.-DPRK relations.
But, I have no reason to believe Trump will accomplish anything productive in this meeting. While straightforward negotiation is the best solution, Trump is no master of the art of the deal.
He’s demonstrated troubling gullibility and impressionability in previous meetings, which suggests he’s more likely to capitulate to North Korean arguments than to force substantive reform from them, if anything besides symbolism comes from the meeting at all. Despite having built his public image on a reputation of dealmaking, Trump has shown dazzling ineptitude in cutting legislative agreements and has hindered American diplomatic efforts worldwide, causing strain with ordinarily friendly nations such as the U.K. and Mexico, as well as mishandling more sensitive situations with Cuba and Turkey.
Meanwhile, the State Department, which ordinarily would be a major resource for a president ahead of such an important diplomatic meeting, has been more or less gutted, with technocratic and advisory positions left unfilled. This meeting between Kim and Trump comes at a time of further upheaval for the State Department, replacing Secretary of State. The current disarray and dysfunction in the department will only exacerbate the president’s poor negotiation skills.
Moreover, I doubt the intentions of both parties.
Becoming a legitimate enough player on the world stage to bring an American president to the table is a North Korean fantasy straight out of a propaganda film, as Quartz Media reported. Though recent symbolic actions, such as competing alongside South Korea in this year’s Winter Olympics, were encouraging signals of a less misanthropic DPRK, this meeting seems more likely to be an ego trip for Kim than a step toward positive global involvement.
And what are America’s goals here? To prevent the threat of a nuclear North Korea? To improve the living conditions of North Korean citizens? To open North Korea up to global trade? These are good goals, but America’s main objective is probably only to preserve a world order with itself at the top, and more positive reforms will only be sought insofar as they serve that agenda.
A nuclear America is just as much a threat to the world as a nuclear North Korea, but I would feel confident predicting America isn’t comfortable with, and won’t offer, any reciprocality in any sort of disarmament measures. It’s correct and imperative to criticize North Korea’s record on human rights; it’s disgusting. But if Kim responds to criticism of Korean camps by pressing Trump on the horrors at Guantanamo Bay; or, on the topic of famine, points out that America, a nation with far more viable farmland and resources, also has children starving, would he really be wrong to do so?
Perhaps the proportions of the countries’ wrongdoing are incomparable, but my point isn’t to equate the two states’ offenses. The point is Kim wouldn’t be out of bounds to call America’s talking points hypocritical, and U.S. reluctance to address its failures will hinder its ability to press North Korea to improve on its own, amounting to a loss for the people of both nations.
A productive negotiation session would see both nations pledging to, and then commencing to, improve in all these areas, but that’s not what’s going to happen here.
The goal of international relations — and of civilization as a whole — should be to improve and secure quality of life for humankind. Unfortunately, the steps toward this goal which could result from U.S.-DPRK negotiation (nuclear disarmament, de-escalation of tensions and increased human rights) are unlikely to be made.
Our leaders have the wrong priorities and the wrong strategies to effect this kind of change.