At least half the people with an opinion on the matter think Donald Trump’s plan to do a direct deal with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will either fail or burn out prematurely because the meeting won’t come to pass. The other half, which includes Mr Trump’s CIA director, says the US president is “going to solve a problem”, having already brilliantly manoeuvered a craven Mr Kim to seek talks by dint of excoriating insults, existential threats and economic sanctions.
On this one, though, it might be best to believe Mr Trump himself. As he told a rally full of enthusiastic supporters in Pennsylvania on Saturday: “Look, North Korea’s tough. Who knows what’s going to happen? I may leave fast or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world.”
That sounds reasonable and, unusually, almost suspiciously humble for Mr Trump. It appears to be shorn of the usual conceit of American presidents, that they can magic away insoluble problems. Remember Bill Clinton’s desperate dash to the finish line for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the closing months of his second term?
Could it be that Mr Trump takes a refreshingly realistic view of his chances with the belligerent nuclear-armed North Koreans, unlike his bullying of the beleaguered, unprotected Palestinians? Is the US president unsure he will prevail with Mr Kim? If so, Mr Trump’s unschooled approach to diplomacy is worth a try, especially with so intractable a problem as the Korean peninsula.
For there are many different opinions on what might be “the greatest deal”. Congress, as well as US security and foreign policy officials, want “concrete, verifiable steps toward denuclearisation”, a willingness to apply new punitive measures if Pyongyang demurs and fierce protection for the US alliance with South Korea. In Chinese terms, a good deal would be for North Korea to freeze its nuclear build-up with verifiable inspections while the US speedily removes its troops from the peninsula. Ditto North Korea, although it would probably want the prompt lifting of sanctions as well and offer only restricted access to outside monitors. South Korea would be happy if it were able just to live without the fear of impending war.
But going by Mr Trump’s past statements as a private citizen, none of these would be “the greatest deal”. He has long raged at the expense of protecting South Korea, asking in 2013: “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?” And again, two years later, he groused: “We have 28,000 soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman and them. We get practically nothing compared to the cost of this.” Would Mr Trump regard an end to Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missiles programme, which threatens the United States, and the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea as the “greatest deal”?
Who is to say that isn’t the best deal, under the circumstances? True, it would be an affront to American neo-cons, an insult to the 70-year-old idea of America as globo-cop, the world’s protector and saviour, and it would undoubtedly legitimise North Korea’s existing arsenal. As US nuclear proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis dispiritingly tweeted of Mr Trump’s impending date with Mr Kim: “This is literally how the North Korean film The Country I Saw ends. An American president visits Pyongyang, compelled by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes to treat a Kim as an equal.”
But is that so bad if a catastrophic war were averted and millions saved from death, disfigurement, generations of genetic defects and the environmental degradation from reduction of the ozone layer?
Back in October, when fears of a nuclear conflict were high, veteran Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan suggested exactly that sort of greatest deal in exchange for peace. The best way to avoid war is to reward North Korea’s “bad behaviour”, Mr Kausikan said, pointing out “precedents” such as the agreement with Iran, a threshold nuclear state. He went on to emphasise that “North Korean ambitions are limited — it only wants to survive” and sagely described “a peace treaty with a de facto nuclear-armed state” as a “small price for stability”. Indeed, North Korea has at least 20 nuclear weapons and Iran had not produced one when it was constrained by the 2015 nuclear deal, although it had been stockpiling low-enriched uranium which could be used to build a bomb.
This is common sense, even if at odds with the customary swagger of sections of the American security and foreign policy establishment. Surprisingly, it is also an “America First” view, fulfilling the US President’s key promise to his voters and eliminating, in one stroke, two problems — the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile threat to the US homeland and Mr Trump’s resentful estimates of the cost of defending South Korea.
Will it happen? No one knows, not even Mr Trump, if his Pennsylvania grandstanding is to be believed. Can it happen? Yes. The US has a mould-breaking president and his transactional view of foreign relations might be the way forward. It might mean peace in our time.