President Donald Trump has been given huge amounts of advice regarding the pending meeting with North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong Un, possibly in May. The only real advice the president should heed is preparation and even more preparation. He can rest assured that Little Rocket Man will not only be ready, he will have on his side China and South Korea.
While speculation about this summit abounds, much of it has missed the rationale and factors that brought this about. South Korea's national security adviser made the announcement of Kim's interest in meeting at the White House. Trump responded immediately to accept. First, Kim now believes that his nuclear weapons and missile programs are sufficient to deter the United States from any thoughts of regime change and pre-emptive strike. He also knows that his grandfather signed a friendship treaty with China in 1961 that pledges Beijing's military support should the North be attacked by any outside power.
Further, despite the embargoes and sanctions, the North Korean economy has grown possibly by 4 percent last year if South Korean estimates are correct. Based on data gained from North Korean defectors, a big part of the population not engaged in politics supports young Kim. And Kim has apparently purged his government of possible threats to his continued leadership. All of this is empowering.
Second, with Olympic diplomacy, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in has established a new relationship with Pyongyang and so far a positive one. The two Koreas have long been interested in improving ties and have just not been able to accomplish that -- -yet. It was Moon who brokered this deal for a potential meeting.
Third, Beijing is the ultimate power broker. Kim's "secret" and highly publicized meeting in Beijing with President Xi Jingping gives China a key role in any negotiations that may follow. Whether China's clampdown on oil and energy exports to North Korea made a difference or not, Kim is clearly the junior partner. But he will not admit that.
Considering the promise of "denuclearization," make no mistake. Kim has no intention of abandoning the very weapons that got him to this position of what he considers semi-strategic equality with Washington in the short or medium term if ever. Instead, limiting production and testing may be more achievable outcomes if the price is right.
The quid could be reductions in U.S. military presence in South Korea and fewer joint exercises. Trump will not be negotiating from strength. The threat of steel and other tariffs, as well as forcing trade concessions from South Korea, did not go down well in Seoul. While the president may think that he was able to obtain this agreement without limiting his authority and likelihood of success in dealing with the North, he is mistaken. The leaders on the peninsula and in Beijing could conceivably reach some agreement without U.S. acquiescence.
Moon could argue that his country might be better off with closer collaboration with China and the North at the expense of America. After all, what could Trump do -- threaten to remove U.S. forces much as he seems to be attempting in Syria? And if relations with neighbors to the north improve, why would South Korea be unhappy with any American troop withdrawal. It wasn't too long ago that President Jimmy Carter tried to do the same thing, even though that was a bridge far too far.
The new national security adviser John Bolton will have at best six weeks to prepare for this meeting. If he cannot separate himself quickly with his Political Action Committee and other business interests, that time could be shorter. While the Senate will schedule hearings for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April, a quick confirmation is not certain. In the meantime, the CIA is reportedly the lead agency in preparing for the summit.
No matter how qualified CIA personnel may be, diplomatic summits are not an agency long suit. Lacking an ambassador in Seoul and a State Department more than decimated by its last secretary, it is not clear where good advice is to be found. Turmoil and chaos in a White House waging multiple battles on many fronts, especially legal with suits and allegations levied against the president and a Russian investigation that may actually delve into Trump's financial records, do not make for an ideal environment in which to plan serious talks with North Korea.
Concluding that Trump faces terrible odds in making any meeting with Kim a success or at least not a fiasco is not irrational. Kim, Moon and Xi have several parallel and common interests. Excluding the United States by working out an agreement without Washington may seem another bridge way too far. But that possibility cannot be entirely ignored.