Can Trump Close a Korean Deal?


“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”       

If the combined talents of Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Stieg Larsson and Daniel Silva had concocted the storyline that came out of Washington last week, every major publishing house would have rejected their proposal out of hand. 

Imagine a summit meeting between a nuclear-powered absolute dictator of North Korea and an egotistical and impulsive president of the United States, an odd couple who had traded insults such as “little Rocket Man” and “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” 

And yet, stranger than fiction, President Donald Trump announced that he plans to meet Kim Jong Un sometime in May at an unspecified location. 


The quote at the top of this editorial is usually attributed to Winston Churchill but actually is traced to a later British prime minister, Harold Macmillan. It speaks of the preference for diplomacy, not armed confrontation, to solve international problems as opposed to confrontation.

Trump came into office talking about how he alone could solve certain problems, but he may have overestimated his abilities when it comes to the world stage. He has been stymied so far in his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, showing that deal-making talents that may succeed in the world of business don’t necessarily translate to the realm of international diplomacy.

The surprise announcement of the summit with the North Korean leader is reminiscent of the pingpong diplomacy in the 1970s that played a key role in the easing of tensions between the United States and China, ending with President Richard Nixon visiting Beijing. This time, it was not table tennis but last month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea that reportedly helped pave the way for talks with North Korea.

Diplomatic observers are questioning whether this kind of approach is the most fruitful, given the administration’s lack of experience in international affairs. This week’s change at the top of the State Department, replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, doesn’t increase confidence in the level of expertise in foreign affairs. Typically, long and intense back-channel discussions lay the groundwork for a climactic meeting for the people at the top. Trump, of course, is not one to do things in the typical manner.

It’s also fair to ask whether the abrupt reversal of course with North Korea was announced by the White House to distract attention from other stories:  the steady drip, drip, drip of news out of Robert Mueller’s Russia  investigation, perhaps, or the gathering clouds from Stormy Daniels.

Of course, the stakes of a Trump-Kim meeting would be  much higher than those of the Trump-Stormy affair. For decades, three generations of North Korean dictators have played the United States by agreeing to disarm in exchange for financial or other benefits, only to consistently fail to comply with terms of the agreement.

In 1994, during President Bill Clinton’s administration, Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung, signed an agreement in which North Korea was given aluminum tubes, heavy water and radioactive yellow cake on the condition that they would not be used to develop atomic weapons. Just a few years later, under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has indeed used those materials to construct and successfully test six atomic weapons, and Kim has made a point of testing long-range ballistic missiles that could potentially hit targets anywhere in the United States. 

And given the Trump administration’s quick reversals on other issues, no one can even be sure that the much-ballyhooed summit will ever take place. 

Remember recent turnarounds like harsh tariffs with no exemptions, followed by the actual terms; or sweeping proposed changes in gun regulations followed by backpedaling after they came under fire from the National Rifle Association.

Some of Trump’s harshest critics, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have expressed the hope that Trump will triumph in his talks with Kim while at the same time expressing grave doubts that the talks will succeed.

If Trump can talk Kim down from the brink of a nuclear confrontation, and if there could be an agreement to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula, the achievement would be worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, as absurd as that would have sounded just weeks ago.  

If the talks fail, Trump can claim that he attempted to use his “art of the deal” to de-escalate a global crisis but couldn’t manage to close the sale.

We join Warren and others in being cautiously hopeful that Trump and Kim, the ultimate odd couple of international leaders, can come to terms using “jaw-jaw” to prevent disastrous  “war-war.”