The one thing that occurred me this week when it was announced that Kim Jong-Un had asked to meet with President Trump, and that the Donald had actually said yes, was that Pyongyang has Fallen isn’t a very catchy title for the next disaster movie. Because that’s the possibility that hangs over our heads if the meeting between Kim and Trump goes poorly: the dick-waving contest that ends the world becoming the inspiration for the next Hollywood blockbuster.Though I suppose that if the world ends because of this meeting between Kim and Trump going poorly, there won’t be anyone to make the film anyway.
Perhaps this is too pessimistic, and the two men might finally break through the frostiness of relations between the two countries, but given the two men’s personalities, and their record as politicians, one can be forgiven for not thinking that this meeting will prove anything other than fraught.
The meeting between Trump and North Korea’s third Kim is certainly historic. The leaders of the two countries have never met, and the nation of North Korea has been in existence since 1948. And this, a meeting between the two heads of state, is really the only method not yet tried. Bill Clinton’s administration tried hard to build relations in the late 1990s, but ran out of time before a Bush retook the oval office; and Trump’s twitter-diplomacy, calling Kim Jong-Un “little rocketman” and bragging about the size of his nuclear warheads, shocked no one when it made the situation worse.
But the meeting is as surprising as it is historic. It obviously surprised the media that Trump had agreed to meet Kim, given their fraught prior relationship, more worryingly though, it has surprised Trump’s staff and advisors. Dan Balz at the Washington Post pointed out that the meeting ‘came with no serious staff preparation and caught many of his advisers by surprise.’ And Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, said that the meeting was a decision the President had ‘taken by himself.’ Indeed, the meeting was announced a day after Tillerson had said that talks between the two countries were a long way away.
On a side note, this is yet another example of Tillerson being sidelined by the Trump administration, but the full extent of this will have to be explored another day.
So if the meeting was a spontaneous decision by Trump, one wonders why he would want such a summit? Evan Osnos noted in the New Yorker that Richard Nixon once said that the mark of a good leader is if they can give history a nudge. Perhaps that is Trump’s thinking, that by having the summit he’ll already make history, and if the summit actually gets some good results, then he looks even better. Though it should be noted, following the advice of a president who did indeed give history a nudge by becoming the first to resign America’s highest office, is perhaps a little misguided.
It’s easier to understand why Kim Jong-Un would want a meeting with President Trump: it brings his country legitimacy. Kim will be meeting the president as a fellow leader, an equal, something that would have been unthinkable in past presidential administrations, or even unthinkable at the beginning of the reign of Trump. And Mark Bowden points out in The Atlantic that this legitimacy has been helped by having nuclear weapons: that no U.S. President had agreed to meet a leader of North Korea before it had nuclear weapons (though it was unlikely that Obama would have ever met Kim Jong-Un, and nuclear weapons in North Korea were indisputable during his tenure).
Whatever reasons both men had for arranging the meeting, it is apparently going to happen before May (though this of course still needs to be arranged, it is not yet clear where this meeting is going to happen). If it does happen, the world will be watching. Jim Walsh, a senior research associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program, told Mark Bowden: ‘I’m elated and horrified at the same time… Elated because the parties are talking; horrified by the prospect of the two most unusual leaders in the world together in a room—what could possibly go wrong?’
What could possibly go wrong? Well, let’s hope they like each other. If they don’t, then we have to hope Trump doesn’t take the man with the nuclear football with him to wherever the meeting ends up being held. Because Jim Walsh is right, they are the two most unusual leaders in the world, with what could charitably be called unusual temperaments. Negotiations between the two are always going to be strange.
But again, Walsh is right. The parties are talking. Assuming the meeting happens before May (and it should be noted that this is still a big if, remember no diplomatic talks had been happening before this announcement) then there are three possibilities. The first is perhaps the most predictable: that the meeting is a photo opportunity, no real ground is made, there is no real progress. The second is that actual progress is made on the two country’s relations, and if that happens then the world will have to begrudgingly give the two the faintest pat on the back. The third possibility is terrifying, and doesn’t need explaining, particularly to the populations of Seoul, Guam, or really any territory or city anywhere near the two powers.
Hopefully it’s the second, though I’d settle for the first. But I’m still going to prepare for the third by hoarding a not-insignificant amount of tinned food and bottled water.
Photo Credit: Jean Chung/Bloombury/Getty.