If nothing else, Thursday’s dramatic announcement of the first-ever meeting between an American president and North Korea’s dictator has succeeded in changing the subject—from an alleged affair with a porn star to the serious business of dealing with the nuclear threat from the world’s most hostile regime in Pyongyang.
But beyond his immediate PR crisis, the idea of Donald Trump as a world-historical dealmaker is something the president has been talking about since he became a candidate two years ago, claiming he could “get along” with Kim Jong Un because of his skills as a real estate negotiator. Going even further back, Trump has been talking about making the “deal of the century” on nuclear weapons ever since he first popped up on the national scene in the 1980s. Back then, of course, he was going to make that phenomenal deal on nuclear arms control with the leader of the Soviet Union.
Trump as Grand Negotiator is a narrative the White House is sure to push for all it is worth. So it behooves observers to focus on the substance rather than getting lost in the atmospherics. And that means answering hard questions about the rationale for America’s military presence in South Korea and the necessity of U.S. military might in Asia as a counter to the growing political, military and economic power of China. It’s worth remembering that as a “nationalist” not a “globalist,” the president has in the past questioned the purpose and the price tag of U.S. military forces deployed abroad. Because we know Pyongyang’s decades-long goal has been to see off U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, there seems little doubt that Kim will be probing Mr. Trump to try to undermine the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense and to see what it will take to achieve a U.S. troop withdrawal. And since, shall we say, alliance management and reassurance have not been hallmarks of this administration, we can expect Kim to probe everywhere for daylight between Washington and Seoul.
What makes the upcoming summit even more complex for the United States is that China is both ally and adversary. Arguably, the Trump administration has played its China card reasonably well to this point, as Beijing has been at least officially supportive of international efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and has even been more cooperative in enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang to that end. But all that cooperation is about to come crashing down as the subject matter changes from denuclearizing North Korea to maintaining America’s large military presence in South Korea.
Why? Because once Kim explains that his nuclear and missile programs are an understandable response to the U.S. deployment of conventional forces in and around Seoul, China’s posture is likely to change dramatically. Ditto for Russia. Beijing and Moscow would like nothing better than to see U.S. forces withdrawn from South Korea. These days, Russia’s entire foreign policy appears oriented toward weakening America’s international standing. China, meanwhile, has been spending hundreds of billions of dollars to build up its naval and conventional capabilities in order to challenge the primacy of American military power in Asia. So, even though Beijing is sympathetic to our concerns about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Chinese diplomats would be all too happy to see U.S. troops leave the peninsula.
The sequence of summits will also make it relatively easy for Pyongyang to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States on the troop issue. With South Korean President Moon Jae-in heading to North Korea first, reportedly toward the end of April, Kim will have every reason to blame the United States, and especially its deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops just miles from the border, for making necessary a nuclear deterrent. Similarly, South Korean officials, unlike U.S. officials, have long favored providing Pyongyang economic incentives and financial assistance to promote nuclear arms control. Which means the two subjects Washington least likes to discuss—U.S. troops and aid to North Korea—will be front and center in the weeks following the North-South summit and during the preparations for the U.S.-North Korean meeting.
The stakes for Washington could hardly be higher. The Trump administration will have to face up to thorny realities of great power cooperation and competition. How will it respond when China sides with North Korea in arguing before and after the summit that the United States conventional forces in South Korea are one of the root causes of the crisis?
Given its nationalist bias and the president’s penchant for unorthodox policies, it’s also not hard to imagine the current administration breaking decades of precedent and putting U.S. forces on the negotiating table in some fashion. But if it does, the outcry from defense officials and traditional experts back in Washington is likely to be far more intensely critical than anything it has heretofore experienced. It’s not hard to imagine Defense Secretary Jim Mattis threatening to resign, for instance.
As far as alliance management is concerned, last year saw Washington talking tough against North Korea even while advocating trade sanctions against its South Korean ally. This time around, the controversy is likely to center on ideas for financial or other assistance to North Korea to promote progress on the nuclear issue. For the Trump team, the dilemma could become acute. If it is not willing to contemplate cuts in U.S. forces, what incentive other than aid is left for Pyongyang? Simply lifting sanctions is not going to be enough to move the North Koreans, because the Kim regime has a high threshold for pain. Some aid package, along the lines of the Agreed Framework that froze the North Korean plutonium program in the 1990s, will surely be required as an inducement, and that is precisely the kind of price the Trump administration has said the United States mistakenly paid in the past.
At some point in every president’s first term, events emerge to test his management of international affairs. If the summit ends up happening, the historic fact of an American president bargaining with the world’s most bloodthirsty dictator will constitute that test for President Trump. Managing a China that is both friend and foe and maintaining solidarity with South Korea on an issue of overwhelming importance to the Korean people will require statesmanship of the highest order.
This summit will also involve questions of profound importance to the United States and international peace and security. Will he make progress towards ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program? What will happen to the U.S. alliance with South Korea? And above all, what effect will the summit have on the struggle for military and political leadership in Asia as a rising China seeks to supplant the United States? Like it or not, we are about to find out whether President Trump is capable of handling all that.