When Donald Trump sits down with Kim Jong-un sometime this spring he will do so against the backdrop of Kim’s surprising love-in with President Moon Jae-in last week at Panmunjom, when the two leaders hugged, held hands and all but planted kisses on each other to make up for decades of mutual hostility on the Korean peninsula.
Those were the years when the Kim dynasty in North Korea rolled a succession of U.S. presidents — Bill Clinton, George Bush the younger, and Barack Obama — for groceries, oil, concessions and indulgences for which they gave very little in return.
President Trump, who boasts of mastering “the art of the deal,” says “something very dramatic” could happen at his summit with Mr. Kim, and “the North Koreans are treating us with great respect. I think I have a responsibility to see if I can [negotiate] peace with North Korea.”
The president promises that he is “not going to be played” like previous presidents, and he gets “a big, big kick” out of people he considers incompetent now giving him advice on how make a deal with Kim. Indeed, Mr. Trump is entitled to the credit — which his embittered critics are not likely to give him — for bringing North Korea to the point of talking about giving up their threats of nuclear annihilation of their adversaries. It’s his tough talk, backed up by the economic sanctions he persuaded the West to put in place, that produced this hopeful moment in time.
Mr. Kim is a clever man, playing his advantages with the cunning of a Mississippi riverboat card shark. “We will work towards preventing another horrible war,” he said at Panmunjom on signing a joint declaration with Seoul last week. “With one language, on culture and one history, North and South Korea will be joined as one nation.” Emotion is a strong driver to action. The Seoul government says 57,920 of its citizens have family members in the north, and 8 of 10 are over 70 years old, and these families have a natural yearning to a final reunion. President Moon recalled accompanying his mother to North Korea for reunion with her sister 14 years ago, and the powerful appeal of reunion can move public sentiment toward reunification.
But sentiment does not drive governments. Mike Pompeo, the new secretary of State, understands that. “The economic pressure that has been put in place by this global effort that President Trump has led, has led [Mr. Kim] to believe that it is in his best interests to come to the table and talk about reunification,” he says. The pressure will remain in place, because it must. “There is a lot of history here. Promises have been made and hopes have been dashed.”
The president seems to understand that, too. He said earlier last week that he would “respectfully walk away” from the summit rather than make a bad deal. He must be carefully prepared for the summit, but not listen too much to incompetents who try to give him too much advice. He can trust his own instincts more.
The historian William Taubman recalls how the wise men prepared Ronald Reagan for his first summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. “They put him through the equivalent of a college course,” including 20 learned papers followed by discussions with their authors, meetings with other academics from outside the bureaucracy, and video presentations put together by the CIA from broadcast material, pumped into the presidential consciousness in frequent Oval Office sessions.
But it was the Gipper’s willingness to walk away from a bad deal at a later summit in Iceland that persuaded the Russians that the old game was over, and the agreement they reached eventually led to the end of the Cold War on American terms. Mr. Trump must remember who he is dealing with, a brutal dictatorship, and remember Otto Warmbier, a robust, healthy 22-year-old University of Virginia student visiting Pyongyang who was arrested for trying to take a propaganda poster home with him, put on trial in a kangaroo court, sentenced to 15 years in prison, and returned to his family in a coma, blind and deaf, his teeth rearranged as with a mechanic’s pliers and his body so battered and scarred that his mother barely recognized him.
The Trump-Kim summit may well be an opportunity to give peace a chance, but deep skepticism and caution must be the order of the day. The president must keep in mind the folk wisdom that “you go home with the one that brung you to the dance.” It’s Mr. Trump’s hard line with North Korea, sometimes harsh and sometimes crude, that brung him to this dance, and he gets to call the fiddler’s tune.