Early in US president Bill Clinton’s first term, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung reportedly asked visiting American scholars: ‘If Bill Clinton can meet with the president of South Korea, why couldn’t he meet with me?’
Toward the end of Clinton’s second term, Marshal Jo Myong Rok of the Korean People’s Army met with the president in the White House, where he pleaded with Clinton to meet with Kim Il Sung’s son Kim Jong Il: ‘I need to secure your agreement to come to Pyongyang. I really need to take back a positive answer.’
Clinton would come close but ultimately never agree to meet with a North Korean leader; neither would George W Bush or Barack Obama. Now, it appears that Kim Jong Un will accomplish what both his grandfather and father failed to achieve — a face-to-face meeting with a sitting US president.
Not everyone is happy about the on-again, off-again, on-again diplomatic summit between President Donald Trump and Kim. Many observers have raised concerns about the utility and morality of meeting with one’s avowed enemy. Yet, by any objective reading, Trump’s decision to meet Kim deserves praise. US leaders should generally be far more willing to engage in personal diplomacy with enemies, including authoritarian leaders credibly accused of mass human rights violations.
That’s so for several reasons. First, it is impossible to reach a settlement without some form of communication between two parties. This can be done through tacit silent bargaining, third-party intermediaries, or directly. Trump benefits from an immense intelligence apparatus that strives to infer the long-range intentions of leaders like Kim. As Keren Yarhi-Milo presents in her masterful book Knowing the Adversary, all presidents use or ignore such information to varying degrees. But it is only through direct communication that you can receive the clearest and most vivid picture of an adversarial leader’s mindset and motivations.
Second, all governments employ some degree of bluff or deception to mask their interests, intentions or plans. North Korea is no different in this regard, although it has been comparatively transparent about the development of its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. But that’s why true diplomatic breakthroughs are almost never achieved in one day but rather are based on iterative confidence-building measures and small, verifiable changes in both sides’ behaviors. If Trump or Kim expects a ‘big bang’ of complete disarmament or fully normalized relations soon after they shake hands, they will both be disappointed. They will test each other’s sincerity and trust and have to do so over successive diplomatic engagements.
Third, there are no adversaries so immoral or evil that they should never be engaged. As Mitchell Reiss details in his book Negotiating With Evil, ever since George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson authorized annual payments of naval supplies to the Barbary pirates, virtually all presidents have consulted and compromised with adversaries who were — at the time — considered to be the most despicable and vile individuals imaginable. The presidents did so because the alternative of not consulting and compromising with them made it far less likely that America’s interests could be achieved. Finally, if conducted in a straightforward and unceremonious manner, diplomacy does not bestow legitimacy upon a government and its leadership. It simply acknowledges the reality of who has the power and authority to deliver what you want delivered.
Fourth, meeting with your adversaries is not a concession to them. Rather, it is an opportunity to better grasp their ideas and motivations and to explore if there is the possibility of brokering an understanding or agreement over disputed positions. You must negotiate and ultimately compromise when you cannot obtain your objectives unilaterally or not at a level of cost that is tolerable. Moreover, not meeting with your adversaries increases the probability of misperception, escalating rhetoric, coercive threats and war.
Fifth, you cannot control how the adversary will portray diplomacy. Many critics of Trump’s current approach to North Korea worry about what this signals to the international community.
As I have noted previously, excessive concerns about signaling in global affairs are generally misplaced. Foreign policymaking is not an omnidirectional antenna that clearly emits messages in all directions, which are correctly interpreted and acted upon by the intended audiences. Though you may attempt to manage it, you cannot control how those audiences perceive you. Indeed, refraining from pursuing diplomatic initiatives because of how an adversary might characterize that initiative is surely a signal of weakness. And in the case of North Korea, allowing the propaganda efforts of a totalitarian government to influence US policymaking priorities is just self-crippling.
Sixth, and most importantly, it is not the act of face-to-face negotiations that matters but the manner in which they are prepared and conducted. Here, Trump has shown how tone and process can derail diplomacy or make the probability of it failing more likely and consequences more dire. Trump and his senior aides have needlessly hyped expectations, raised the audience costs, and assigned generally benign intentions upon North Korea’s leadership (while at the same time assigning exclusively malicious intentions upon Iran’s leaders). The administration chose this approach all while it has made (at least publicly) conflicting demands on North Korea — some maximalist and highly improbable and others of little consequence and therefore achievable. The ad hocism that has defined US foreign-policy making over the past 17 months is once again prevalent.
It is too soon to know whether the diplomatic meeting apparently still scheduled for 12 June will be mere televised fanfare or a productive discussion of the differences between two adversaries that leads to inevitable follow-on talks. The ramifications could not be higher, as a public embarrassment for Trump would undoubtedly shorten the timeline for a preventive attack against North Korea. Despite the Trump administration’s missteps and mixed messages thus far, diplomacy with North Korea is worth pursuing.
Micah Zenko, Whitehead Senior Fellow, US and the Americas.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.