(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump took the biggest gamble of his presidency on Thursday, breaking decades of U.S. diplomatic orthodoxy by accepting an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The bet is that Trump’s campaign to apply maximum economic pressure on Kim’s regime has forced him to consider what was previously unthinkable: surrendering the illicit nuclear weapons program begun by his father. If the president is right, the U.S. would avert what appeared at times last year to be a steady march toward a second Korean War.
It was classic Trump, showing an unerring confidence to get the better end of any negotiation. But it was also Trump in another way: high risk and high reward, with little regard for those in the foreign policy establishment who worry it’s too much, too soon.
“He’s taking a risk,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “By seizing an opportunity for a summit meeting, a decision that would have taken much more time in another administration, the president has said, ‘I’m going to go right now. And we’re going to test this.”’
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared to introduce a bit of wiggle room for Trump on Friday, telling reporters at a briefing that the president wouldn’t proceed with the meeting “until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea.” She didn’t elaborate, though a South Korean envoy said Kim pledged to stop nuclear tests until the summit.
A White House official later said the administration isn’t adding conditions for the meeting beyond holding Kim to his pledge not to conduct new tests.
There is no protocol for Trump to follow or guidebook for him to fall back on: he would be the first sitting U.S. president ever to meet with a North Korean leader.
Regardless of how it turns out, the stunning decision by Trump hands Kim a prize long sought by the regime’s ruling dynasty: the legitimacy conferred by a historic meeting with the sitting president.
So much could go wrong. Kim’s proposal may be a ruse to buy time for North Korea’s weapons program to develop further and to undermine sanctions. The summit might collapse, leaving the U.S. president looking hapless and escalating military tensions on the Korean peninsula.
It’s a startling turnabout for two leaders who have spent the past year trading personal insults. Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man” and threatened to rain “fire and fury” on his regime. Kim maligned Trump as a “dotard” while demonstrating that his nuclear program had overcome earlier technical hurdles.
The turn of events will bleed attention from Trump’s domestic political troubles, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing Russia probe and porn star Stormy Daniels’ lawsuit alleging an affair with the president. And the announcement came on a day when Trump had already toppled a pillar of U.S. policy dogma, breaking the long-standing commitment to freer trade by imposing stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
Trump and his team recognize the possibility that Kim’s outreach is not in good faith or is some sort of ploy, an administration official said. But the U.S. president’s advisers believe that if the U.S. continues to exert maximum pressure on the North Korean regime as the summit approaches, Kim may be forced to make real concessions even if he enters talks thinking he can avoid them.
The president stressed that Kim would gain no immediate relief in a Twitter post shortly after the meeting was announced. “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached,” Trump wrote.
Trump reached out to regional leaders, speaking by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, White House officials said.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the tenor of the message Kim sent through the South Korean delegation persuaded Trump the time was ripe to engage, “a decision the president took himself.”
“This was the most forward-leaning report that we’ve had in terms of Kim Jong Un’s not just willingness but his strong desire for talks,” Tillerson told reporters in Djibouti on Friday. “So I think really what changed was his posture in a fairly dramatic way in all honesty that came as a little bit of a surprise to us.”
Even the technical hurdles to reach an agreement are immense, eclipsing the challenges President Barack Obama faced in making a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.
“It’s the Iran deal times 100 because they already have a workable nuclear weapons program with the rudimentary ability to deliver those weapons,” said Bell, who served in the Office of the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the State Department under Obama.
Still, a prominent hawk among Republican lawmakers offered cautious praise for Trump’s gambit.
While the Kim regime has been “all talk and no action,” Senator Lindsey Graham said in a statement, “I do believe that North Korea now believes President Trump will use military force if he has to.”
“A word of warning to North Korean President Kim Jong Un -- the worst possible thing you can do is meet with President Trump and try to play him,” Graham added. “If you do that, it will be the end of you -- and your regime.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said the talks were evidence the sanctions applied by the administration “are starting to work” while warning that North Korea had “repeatedly used talks and empty promises to extract concessions and buy time.”
Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said that while the talks would extend the period of relative warmth that began during the Olympics, denuclearization remained “extremely unlikely.” Nuclear weapons are fundamental to the Kim family’s grip on power at home.
“Kim Jong Un has rational incentives to keep his nuclear arsenal,” Mount said in a phone interview.
Mount also cautioned that the meeting was “a massive coup” for a regime that “wants to be seen as a regular nuclear power.” It could lend Kim insights into how the U.S. and South Korea coordinate, and the regime could test Trump by asking for exorbitant terms in exchange for denuclearization.
“I do worry about a president who has no foreign policy experience getting out-maneuvered,” he said. “I don’t trust Donald Trump alone in a room with Kim Jong Un.”
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