war on the rocks

Entry 62: Summit Chaos

March 9, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 62nd installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

The news is dominating my every waking moment.  Trump just announced that he agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un in May, details to be arranged.  This is big.  This is like Nixon goes to China big, but on steroids.

On balance, I’m very pessimistic about the prospect of a Trump-Kim meeting, as I’ve expressed more critically on the twitter.  The administration’s North Korea policy has been, from the beginning, nothing but gratuitous risk-taking.  It’s Trump’s MO to take big nuclear war-sized gambles.  That wouldn’t be so problematic if there were a clear theory of the case to justify it.  But what’s the theory here? That Trump charms Kim into unilateral disarmament?  Not plausible.

If it’s just a matter of getting dialogue going, Trump’s not necessary for that.  South Korea’s envoy came back from Pyongyang with North Korea’s agreement to sit down with the United States.  And if it’s a matter of lowering the temperature on last year’s nuclear crisis, that was already achieved through the Olympics.  Again Trump’s not necessary for that.

The one upside in a Trump-Kim meeting that I’m optimistic about is that direct exposure to Kim may condition Trump to speak less bombastically toward Pyongyang.  It might also be possible that Trump comes away agreeing that North Korea need not fully denuclearize.  That would be great, though it would cause trouble for him back in Washington.

Yet there are so many potential downsides.  Like nuclear war.  Or like Trump agreeing to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea.

Like I said, gratuitous risk-taking.  Huge, clear downsides and obscure, small upsides.  Nonsensical.  You have to give Kim Jong Un credit for playing a poor hand extremely well.  He knew his mark, and he—along with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in—have maneuvered Trump into something that Washington has long considered unthinkable.

Despite the chaos and a half-dozen media interview requests, I wrote around 500 words.  At least it’s clear where the book’s narrative will stop—the Trump-Kim Summit, baby.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.