In the history of diplomatic firsts, there has never been something quite like this: Over the past year, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have called each other nothing but belittling names. Then suddenly on March 8, they called for a befriending summit, perhaps by May.
In just one year, the two men have gone from demonization to fraternization. Instead of a military face-off, they will now engage in mannerly face time.
The about-face is head snapping. And yet isn’t personal interaction exactly the secret sauce of any successful negotiation? Each side needs look-you-in-the-eye moments to take a measure of each other’s trust and respect. They need to shed stereotypes. They must listen carefully for each other’s cry for dignity and for the narrative of fear that drives them toward an often unspoken goal. Only then, after the de-demonizing, might a summit between enemies get down to hard issues.
The historic summit will come preloaded with minor concessions. North Korea claims it is ready to denuclearize, will refrain from any nuclear or missile tests for now, and accepts that the annual joint military exercises of South Korea and the United States will take place this spring. For the US, simply granting the North’s longtime wish – being treated as an equal to the US in a summit – is a victory for its desire of legitimacy.
The US came close to giving away that gift in 2000. A top North Korean general visited the Clinton White House and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang. But President Bill Clinton, just before he left office, decided not to pursue a summit.
The Trump-Kim summit will be made easier by the fact that Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet a month earlier. While the 1950-53 war on the Korean Peninsula and the simmering conflict since then have been a power play of ideology and big-power maneuvers, the real issue is the civil divide of the Korean people. China and the US, for all their influence, must wait for that reconciliation.
Each side in this US-North Korea meeting may believe it is negotiating from a position of strength. Kim has nuclear weapons in place with rockets to carry them. Mr. Trump sees his “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions as working along with hints of a stealth attack on the North’s nuclear facilities.
Yet standing down from such tough positions will require stepping up to cleareyed perceptions of each other’s ultimate intentions. How much will the US help revive the dormant North Korean economy? Is North Korea afraid of China’s bullying of its Asian neighbors? Does the US want regime change in Pyongyang? Is Kim, yet again, just buying time or angling for aid concessions?
The diplomatic prep work for this summit must narrow down such questions to the essential few. Only then can Trump and Kim use their time together for the hard work: building a relationship of trust that can lead to verifiable results. The world will be listening to how well they listen to each other.