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Trump’s impulsive response to Kim’s invitation is not entirely without parallel or precedent. At Reykjavik in October 1986 Ronald Reagan, to the consternation of most of his senior advisers, seriously contemplated an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev to ban strategic nuclear weapons. He might even have reached a deal with the Soviet leader had he been prepared to scuttle his Strategic Defense Initiative. In any event, Reagan’s openness to an agreement led to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty the following year. Trump, who sees himself as the “greatest” president ever, may well be hoping to outdo the Great Communicator.

There is no doubt that Trump is taking a great risk meeting with the wily, but opaque, North Korean leader. Yet Kim is taking a risk as well. Should he humiliate Trump, or should Trump merely feel humiliated, the American leader could lash out and order the very strike that Kim fears. China and South Korea are also worried about Trump’s reaction to a failed meeting, but they are equally concerned about the North Korean nuclear programme. Neither wants nuclear weapons in North Korean hands, and both have voiced their support for Trump’s impromptu initiative.

The greatest danger in any negotiation with Kim Jong-un may well be that in his eagerness to obtain a “deal” Trump may agree to withdraw American troops from the peninsula in exchange for Kim’s pledge to terminate his nuclear programme. Apart from Japan, with whom Trump did not consult prior to his sudden acceptance of the offer to meet with Kim, none of the other states with a major stake in the peninsula’s future are likely to oppose such an agreement. The current leadership of South Korea appears to value a stable and peaceful relationship with the North at least as highly as it does the presence of American troops on its territory. China, which is South Korea’s leading trading partner as it is that of the North (the US ranks behind both China and Japan in trade with the South), could well offer to be the guarantor of peninsular peace in place of the US. Russia would support China. After all, Putin is seeking to restore the old Soviet sphere of influence, which included North Korea, and the Russian president is not uncomfortable with a leader who, like himself, has his enemies poisoned even if they are living in another country.

Given the Kim family’s track record of lying, pursuing secret programmes, and reneging on supposedly solemn commitments, any deal that Trump makes is likely to collapse over time. If that deal involves the withdrawal of American troops from the south, Pyongyang may be emboldened to walk away from the agreement sooner rather than later. Should that happen while Trump is still in the White House, he is unlikely to respond by appealing to the UN, which he scorns, or resorting to another round of sanctions. Instead, he could order a military strike, as he did against Syria, his friendship with Putin notwithstanding. But North Korea is not war-torn Syria, and an American attack, unless it completely vitiates Kim’s ability to launch his artillery against the south, will lead to the bloodiest Asian conflict since Vietnam, with the possibility of Chinese and even Russian intervention. Trump is correct in seeking a new path to resolving the Korean crisis. Nevertheless, one can only hope that Mike Pompeo, whether in his current role as CIA Director, or, if confirmed, as Secretary of State, in conjunction with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, can successfully prevent America’s incorrigible and impulsive president from agreeing to any deal that would reduce America’s presence on the peninsula and thereby actually increase the likelihood of another Korean conflagration.
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